In Haddonfield, preserving past in house of the future

Carl Gainsborough (left) and Karl Kernagis outside their Haddonfield home, a Lustron house made almost entirely of metal. The 65-year-old house is one of about 1,600 Lustrons left in the country.

On a quiet Haddonfield street stands a modest but distinctive house built 65 years ago for a future that never came.

Complete with radiant ceiling heat and an "Automagic" washer of clothes and dishes, this little house made of steel was among 2,500 manufactured by the Lustron Corp.

Company owner Carl Strandlund hoped to meet the explosive demand for new houses after World War II. He got $37.5 million from the federal government to do so, but his firm was out of money and out of business by 1950.

Nevertheless, about two-thirds of the houses Lustron produced in Columbus, Ohio, and assembled on sites nationwide are still standing - bolted into concrete slabs and sporting never-needs-painting color schemes "to suit every taste," as brochures promised.

Lustrons were competitively priced at less than $10,000. A dozen of the 16 that were built in New Jersey remain, according to the website RoadsideArchitecture.com - Woodbury and Haddonfield each have one.

"This house is a great machine for living," says Carl Gainsborough, 49, welcoming me into the sleek, retro-chic Lustron Westminster Deluxe Model 2 home he shares with his partner, Karl Kernagis, in Haddonfield.

"It never had wheels. It's not a trailer," Kernagis, 61, says, noting, "Last Christmas, we had 22 people in for dinner."

That's no small feat in a five-room house with a galley kitchen, a single bathroom, and slightly more than 1,000 square feet of floor space.

But four picture windows, sliding "pocket" doors, and clever built-ins of all sorts help make the little house feel bigger. After 65 years, the "machine for living" works just fine, thank you.

"I can fix anything," Kernagis says. "Although you can't really improve on something that's close to perfect."

The dove-gray steel paneling on the walls provides a tasteful backdrop for the couple's eclectic decor, as well as for their exuberant displays of vintage collectibles.

"The design will never age," says Gainsborough, an old friend of mine. "It's simple and functional."

Originally promoted as economical, yet glamorous, housing for the middle-income masses, Lustrons have in recent years been featured in books, academic studies, documentary films, museum exhibits, and a computer game.

There's also a Lustron Homes History and Preservation Forum where fans post photos and queries for replacement parts, such as the elusive original china cabinets.

"When I first saw our house, I wanted it right away," recalls Gainsborough, who grew up in Merchantville and works for a Center City accounting firm.

"A friend said, 'This is a teardown,' and I thought, 'I don't want to tear it down.' "

He and Kernagis - a truck driver and Haddonfield native - bought the place in 2010. They're among 15 Lustron owners nationwide whom photographer/author Charles J. Mintz interviewed for his upcoming book.

"These houses were a very, very successful design, produced on an innovative platform," says Mintz, whose Lustron Stories is set for publication in 2016 by Ohio State University Press.

"The idea was to sell them as a house of the future," he says from his home in Cleveland, "rather than a cheap steel house."

The Lustron company stressed the inexpensive maintenance of the interior and exterior porcelain- enameled panels. Much was made, promotionally, of the futuristic amenities - such as that clothes-dish washer combo.

That particular innovation, which utilized separate tubs and wash cycles, proved to be as . . . unappetizing to buyers then as it sounds now.

What doomed the Lustron Corp., however, wasn't its signature product's eccentric features - pictures had to be hung on the walls with magnets - but prosaic problems of production, distribution, competition, and capitalization.

Gainsborough and Kernagis, both of whom were longtime renters until five years ago, believe the company nevertheless fulfilled its promise to provide more people with a piece of the American dream.

Says Gainsborough, "if it wasn't for the Lustron Corp., we probably wouldn't be homeowners today."

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