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Exploring Nicollet Avenue's unusual Lustron houses

Lustron houses on Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis.
MinnPost photo by Steve Date
Lustron houses on Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis.

I lived a few blocks from the row of metal houses on the 5000 block of Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis for many years before I paid any attention to them. I took more notice about eight years ago when my daughter Emily, who was studying architectural history, told me about how interesting they were.

5009 Nicollet Avenue
MinnPost photo by Steve Date
5009 Nicollet Avenue

About a year ago, I was driving down that block and the afternoon sun reflected off one of the houses like a flashbulb. I was intrigued and decided then that I wanted to learn more about these odd Lustron houses.

The front of Buck Holzemer's Lustron house reflects the afternoon sun.
MinnPost photo by Steve Date
The front of Buck Holzemer's Lustron house reflects the afternoon sun.

When I found out they were not only porcelain-enameled steel on the outside, but were metal on the inside as well, I wanted to get inside one.

5015 Nicollet Avenue
MinnPost photo by Steve Date
5015 Nicollet Avenue

Buck Holzemer owns the blue house that flashed me that day. A mutual friend introduced us recently and he gave me a tour of his 1950, 1,000-square foot, baby-boomer beauty.

Buck Holzemer and his 1950 Lustron house.
MinnPost photo by Steve Date
Buck Holzemer and his 1950 Lustron house.

The Lustron Corp. began to design houses in 1947 and marketed them to GIs returning from World War II. There were nearly 3,000 of these enameled-steel homes constructed between 1948 and 1950. The low-maintenance exterior, invented by Carl Strandlund of Chicago, had the color baked in. It was meant to appeal to the modern post-war family. Holzemer likens the exterior panels to "the top of your stove."

Roof as well as siding are all metal.
MinnPost photo by Steve Date
Roof as well as siding are all metal.

According to the Lustron Preservation Organization, about 1,500 Lustron houses nationwide still stand. Many of these have fallen into disrepair, but owners such as Holzemer are trying to preserve them in an authentic way as much as they can. This can be difficult, however, because of the unique design and unusual use of metal throughout. Some owners gave up on being true to the original idea and made changes such as putting vinyl siding over the metal finish.

Maintenance and painting of metal panels has been problematic.
MinnPost photo by Steve Date
Maintenance and painting of metal panels has been problematic. Note also the distinctive decorative trellis.

Holzemer removed the siding on his house to expose the original metal. But this caused multiple new problems because of holes in the metal and the difficulty of painting over it. He also fixed a bad kitchen remodel by a previous owner and installed a new heating system among other things.

Buck Holzemer remodeled his kitchen it the original 1950 style.
MinnPost photo by Steve Date
Buck Holzemer remodeled his kitchen it the original 1950 style.

When Holzemer bought the house, he was attracted to the simple, clean, mid-20th century modern style, but he had no idea how much work it would be to restore and maintain.  He laughs and says he probably wouldn't have done it if he'd known what he knows now.

In this video, Buck Holzemer gives me a tour of the inside of his Lustron house and talks about the restoration and repair work he's done.

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Comments (14)

Interesting story, thanks!

Neat story, love these neighborhood explorations with historical information. Thanks!

There are two of these houses on Cedar Ave as well. So very cool

Drive up I-94 to Fargo's first exit and loop back to the Lindenwood Park neighborhood, you'll find a cluster of these Lustron houses. Even covered over, the characteristic roof and corner entry give hints of these compact homes' history.

A few years back, I lived in one of the brick double bungalows across from these houses. I always thought they were beautiful and intriguing.

I suspect that, in 60+years some of the more recently built single-family homes in our American suburbs will not be in anything close to the good condition these Lustrons are in, not without a good deal more maintenance that the Lustrons have required, at least.

I can't help but wonder if they might inspire similar kinds of construction for our own time:

--houses built from pre-manufactured panels made of more modern materials,

--designed for extreme durability and energy efficiency,

--with roofs incorporating solar cells for energy collection (sufficient for close to off-the-grid sufficiency),

--ventilation systems incorporating heat exchangers to supply the fresh air needed in extremely energy-efficient houses,

--all allowing more flexibility in the design and layout of the house than the lustron system allowed.

By systematizing such construction, it might be possible to massively reduce the cost of extremely energy efficient housing to the point that the average lower income family (i.e. those in the 99%) could afford it.

Thanks, Steve, for introducing the Lustron houses of Nicollet Av to me. I appreciate them every morning on my way to MPS' Windom School. I loved your video, especially the inside look. Didn't know that it was metal in the inside, too!

@Greg,

99% of the country is now "lower income"?

Thanks for letting us know about these houses....what a great piece of Minneapolis we didn't know about. I loved the inside look. It was fun to have pictures and video. Keep finding views!

I really enjoyed reading the Lustron story from the Novemeber 17, 2011 paper along with the video that was posted on the web on the 18th.

The Lustron Corporation reported that at the beginning of 1950, some 33 Lustrons had been built in Minnesota, and I have identified 28 so far. None of the 28 have been torn down (so far) and I suspect the national average remaining houses versus teardowns is similarly high, not like the 50% estimate given by Lustron Preservation, a group that no longer actively pursues finding more houses.

Minneapolis has 11 Lustron 2 bedroom houses with the porch cut out at the front corner. There are 8 on the east side of Nicollet Ave, South in the 5009 to 5055 section. They include two blue, 3 gray, and a yellow. Cedar Ave South has two in the 4900 block with a blue and a tan house. Then there are individual houses at 2436 Mount View Drive; 2820 Roosevelt St, NE (Dark blue with brown trim) and 5217 S 31st Avenue (tan).

The exact number of houses constructed is 2553 and the last one is in McHenry, IL about fifty miles northwest of Chicago in the commuter area.

Photo 1 shows 5021 Nicollet with the awnings and the maise yellow color, placed sideways to the street. Next to it is the newly revealed 5027 Nicollet which used to be buried in a pine tree forest, but now is revealed to be a gray end-on house. I have it when covered in aluminum siding.

Photo 2 is the house at 5009 Nicollet, but my photos show a less intense blue color. I show the normal pale blue. The house is sideways and has an addition to the north.

Photo 3 is Holzmers house at 5027 Nicollet, set end-on to the street.

Photo 4 seems to be the house at 5005 Nicollet which is set end-on to the street. I have it with a large tree in front of the dining room window. The confirming item is the handrail at the front steps.

Steve Date is right that the house is pocealain
covered steel, but Holzemer errs in talking about brush strokes as they painted the metal. The steel was first acid etched and they then spraycoated with a porcelain coating and baked the panels in a large enamel oven at the Columbus, Ohio factory.

Holzemer believes that the radiant heat did not work well north of the Ohio River, but I have talked to several who recalled sitting in the living room at night with the weather temperature twenty below zero and they were comfortable. However, if their legs were under a table, the radiant heat warmed the table and one had to swing their legs out from under the table. Installation of new furnaces has been problamaticle as current installers do not understand radiant heat and set the furnace to blow medium heat across the panels,yo conform with modern standards for forced air heating, but the Lustron requires a much higher temperature for the air that circulates above the rooms and returns to be reheated. Hence, the heat input is not so great as the same air circulates over the panels and then is re-heated to circulate again.
Two houses were built in Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska to test the ability to survive the winter. Both passed the tests of the U S Air Force.

I have a mystery photo of a two bedroom Lustron in Minneapolis with a screened porch area and a set of concrete panels forming a gentle stair sidewalk with about an inch and a half rise between the panels. The location is unknown. The house is blue with yellow window frames and a white gable end. It belongs to a Bart & Karen Hays if they still own it.

Again, great story. I was impressed.

Tom Fetters
The Lustron Home
McFarland Press

Sandy is right.
Fargo (ND) had 8 Lustrons in one neighborhood. One was destroyed by a tornado in 1957 and a second damaged by the same storm. There are 2 gray, 3 blue-green and one yellow and one tan. One has brown siding.
They are on Fifth Street at 1501, on Sixth Street at 1613, 1621, 1622 and on Ninth Street at 1334, 434, and 1638. 1248 Ninth was victim to the tornado. Lustron claimed that 12 had been built in ND by 1950 and I have found 19 in ND since they continued to build them until mid 1950.

Tom Fetters
The Lustron Home

It is nice that Buck did a sympathetic renovation to the home instead of ruining it further. It is not a surprise that the homes had their kitchens ripped out and aluminum siding installed. According to a survey of Lustron owners in 1953, they loved their home but were disappointed in the lack of replacement parts. This has been alleviated a bit with the unfortunate demolition and scavenging of parts from other houses. There is an active community of Lustron lovers on Facebook and yahoo groups. Minnesotians check it out, we should organize!

I heard about these "Lustron houses" they are quite durable and required low maintenance. But never seen them from inside yet, so thanks for sharing your story. I supposed they were introduced in post world war 2 era, is it true?
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Lustron house in ND

I have a memory of a Lustron house in a small town in northern North Dakota, Langdon. I grew up there and just thought it was an oddball house unique to the town. I noticed the similar houses on Nicollet Avenue when I moved here in the late 1980's.

Lustron house in Austin, MN

There is a blue Lustron house in Austin, MN on 6th Avenue SW, between 9th and 10th Streets. I grew up in the neighborhood and the house always intrigued me.