Tom Morris was a teenager when his family’s new home rolled up on the back of a tractor-trailer in thousands of pieces ready for assembly.
The Lustron home arrived from Columbus, Ohio, one of fewer than 2,500 prefabricated steel houses built between 1948 and 1950 as affordable housing for soldiers returning from World War II. It was put together on a nearly 12-acre parcel at 3612 Buffaloe Road in Raleigh and became a cozy if odd-looking home to the Morris family.
“Best I can remember, it took them about three weeks for them to assemble it,” said Morris, 82, a retired physician who lives in Durham.
Now the Raleigh Historic Development Commission is raising money to save the house from demolition.
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The land where the now-vacant house sits is under contract to be sold to make way for new townhomes. The Historic Development Commission wants to relocate and restore the home, and eventually sell it.
The Historic Development Commission will screen the film “Lustron: The House America’s Been Waiting For” at the North Carolina chapter of the American Institute of Architects Center for Architecture & Design near downtown Raleigh on Dec. 8. After the film, a panel discussion will include a Durham owner of a Lustron home and the executive director of N.C. Modernist Houses.
Thirty-nine Lustron homes were delivered to North Carolina in the late 1940s, and several are still occupied in Chapel Hill, Durham and Pittsboro, said Virginia Faust, a volunteer with N.C. Modernist Houses.
Lustrons, which have refrigerator-like walls made from baked-on enamel-coated steel, got their name from “luster on steel.” The roofs, doors, built-in shelving units and even the chimneys are made of steel.
A typical two-bedroom Lustron weighs nearly 13 tons, Faust said.
“You could pick your plan out of a catalog, and all the pieces would be shipped to you,” said Nicole Alvarez, architectural designer at local firm Clearscapes and a member of Raleigh’s Historic Development Commission.
Lustron homes represent an important step in the evolution of prefabricated homes, which are still made today, Alvaraz said.
When Lustrons were built, designers were trying to meet the growing demand for new homes by giving excess steel left over from World War II a new purpose, Alvarez said. Today, designers are creating prefabricated homes for increasingly dense cities.
Morris’ father, George Morris, was born in Iowa in 1901 and traveled the country building plaster walls for construction projects.
The elder Morris met his wife, Jessie, while working on a downtown Raleigh hotel in the late 1920s. The couple married in 1929 and traveled for work until George Morris joined the WWII effort in a New Orleans shipyard.
After the war, the Morris family settled on what was then family-owned farmland outside of Raleigh’s city limits.
Morris said his father chose to buy a Lustron home because he was always looking for the next great technological innovation.
“He didn’t mind taking chances on new things,” Morris said.
In retirement, Morris’ father began creating huge lawn ornaments and planters of molded mesh covered by mortar. He built a big pink dog and geometric shapes around a pond. He also built several replicas of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, and a 40-foot copy sits on the shores of a pond at the State Fairgrounds.
Tom Morris moved out in the early 1950s to attend Wake Forest University. His parents remained at the home until their deaths in the 1990s, he said.
It was rented out afterward, but Morris said he wasn’t able to sell the house.
Now some people hope this isn’t the end for the Lustron home.
“There are only a precious few examples of what we’re trying to do today,” Alvarez said. “It’s still relevant, even if it’s 70 years past.”
Chris Cioffi: 919-829-4802, @ReporterCioffi
If you go
The Raleigh Historic Development Commission will host a fundraiser at 7 p.m. Dec. 8, at the AIA N.C. Center for Architecture & Design at 14 E. Peace St., Raleigh. Tickets are $15 each.