House of Steel or “Why Am I Living in this Lunchbox?”: Lustron Homes

by Jane Jones, HCHM Archivist

Originally posted on Wednesday, July 3, 2013 at

You have heard of the “Man of Steel,” the new Superman Movie now showing. Have you ever heard of the House of Steel?  Hang a picture? Use a magnet.  Instead of just your refrigerator filled with magnets your whole house could become filled with magnetized reminders.  Not only would you water your outside plants, but you could lift that hose slightly and wash down your outside walls! No need to paint the house. The all-steel, pre-fab Lustron home provoked one owner to say, “Why am I living in this lunch box?”

From Luston home ad

Newton has one Lustron Home at 408 Mead.  In 2001 it was featured on the Historical Society’s Home Tour.  The house was built by M.R. Stauffer, Wichita contractor, in 1949.  The local overseer was Jean Coleman who was Stauffer’s son-in-law and the person who persuaded Stauffer to build this unique home.  In fact, Coleman put down money to bring this project to fruition.

An open house was held September 10, 1949 in Newton showing this rather unusual home.  It was all steel, insulated and heated, and erected on a concrete platform.  The home had built-in plumbing, electric wiring conduits and was equipped with all utilities.  An article in the Kansan described the house as having a “large” living room, dinette, utility room, two “commodius” bedrooms, a “large beautiful” bathroom and a “world” of closets and “built-in” fixtures.  Everything was as complete and handy as a “pocket in a shirt” which is probably real estate jargon for small and compact!  All Lustron homes in Kansas are now on the National Historic Register.

Lustron home, 408 Mead

According to Elizabeth Rosin of Historic Preservation Services, LLC of Kansas City, MO from a letter received in December, 2000, 2500 Lustron homes were built nationwide between 1948 and 1950.  Of that number 100 existed in Kansas as of the year 2000.  Lustron home manufacturing was part of the suburban house building boom in America after World War II.  Due to the wartime economy there had developed a housing shortage. Returning GIs starting families wanted affordable housing.

Carl Stradlund, a Swedish immigrant was a self-taught engineer and the founder of the Lustron Corporation.  These pre-fab homes were thought to be the future for middle-class home ownership.  Costing $8,000-$10,000 depending on the model, they were to be manufactured on an assembly line like automobiles.  In fact, automobile workers were first hire-es at the Lustron plant in Columbus, Ohio.  Most models had at least 30,000 parts and could be loaded on Lustron trucks, taken to the building site and put up in 72 hours.

Financial problems dogged Stradlund, as well as, Washington politics. Backed by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation Stradlund received an initial investment to start manufacturing his steel homes. But the company found itself in the middle of a tug-of-war between the idealistic Stradlund who just wanted to build affordable homes and Washington bureaucrats who wanted to skim money from the project. The RFC tried to get their cronies to become major stockholders in Lustron even replacing Stradlund.  Carl refused to fold and ended up losing the company. He “went bust in 1950, leaving millions in debt and thousands of factory workers unemployed.”
Now Lustron homes are special historic oddities representing a different time in American housing.


  • Historic Preservation Services, LLC December 26, 2000.Lustron Home is Open to Guests.  Newton Evening-Republican Sept 10, 1949.
  • Man of Steel: 2008 Farmers’ Almanac.
  • Lustron Luxury
  • E-Mail from Gini Johnson, daughter of Jean Coleman June, 2013.
  • Lustron: The House America’s Been Waiting For: A Documentary Film by Ed Moore, Bill Kubota & Bill Ferehawk 2002. (loaned by Gini Johnson).

“Anyone Can Apply It”

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

Spend time in some of the older homes in Harvey County and you might run across some interesting woodwork.

Pocket doors with false graining.

Pocket doors with false graining.

These doors reflect a popular way to decorate your home during the late 1800s into the early 1900s known as “graining” or “false graining.”  The effect was achieved with tools similar to a graining kit we have at the museum.


Graining Set. HCHM #91.21

The practice of graining became popular in the United States because it was a way to make inexpensive wood, like pine, look like more expensive, less available  wood like oak, mahogany and cherry.

Our graining kit was patented in 1908 by the Ohio Varnish Company, Cleveland, OH as the “Original Ready-to-Use Chi-Namel Graining Process.” For “a little under 2 cents per square foot” a plain floor could become a “Hard Wood Floor with Maple Inlaid Border”  or have the effect of a natural oak floor. instructions 001 The front page of the instruction booklet explains, “Any one can apply it – previous experience not necessary.” The kit in our collection was no doubt ordered by someone interested in completing their own project, not a professional grainer.  There were people, however, that were skilled in the art and available for hire in south central Kansas.

Newton experienced a building boom in the early to mid-1880s.  Many of the homes along West Broadway and East First were built during this period. The 1885 Newton City Directory has nineteen individuals that identified “Painting” as their occupation and one woman, Mrs. F.M. Hurlbut, who worked with “Decorative Art Material.”  There is a separate category in the directory for construction. Those painters that had skill in graining would usually be paid more.

At least two area men were known for their graining skills.

Emil Kym (1862-1918) lived in rural Harvey County near the Alta Mill community.  He was  well known for his work which included wood-graining, marbleizing and even full scale murals of the Swiss mountains.

Emil Kym (1862-1918)

Emil Kym (1862-1918)

The second was John L. Caveny, father of J. Franklin Caveny.  John L, along with wife, Louisa, and two children came to Kansas from Pennsylvania in the early 1870s.  About the same time, his parents, James and Susan, and brother, H. Wayne Caveny, also moved to Newton, Ks.  H. Wayne Caveny also worked as a contract painter.

The Reese House, built in 1879 by John Reese, has several examples of false grained doors.

At this time, we do not know who created the wonderful interior doors at the Reese House. We do know that John L. Caveny was working in the area as early as 1876. He and his brother may have worked on the home.

Ad from The Kansan, 1 June 1876.

Ad from The Kansan, 1 June 1876.

The Caveny brothers continued to work as a painters in Harvey County.  John L. Caveny died in 1920 at the age of 80. Described as “a very useful and valued citizen of Newton,” J. LCaveny also served as county clerk for several terms.

False graining enjoyed renewed popularity in the 1970s with a renewed interest in preserving historic structures.

Find out more about the process at these  two do-it-yourself sites.



  • “Honored Citizen For Many Years Passed on This Morning” Evening Kansan Republican, 4 October 1920.
  • Newton City Directories: 1885, 1887, 1902, 1905, 1911, 1913, 1917. HCHM Archives.
  • U.S. Census 1880, 1900.
  • Stucky, Brian.  “Who Was Emil Kym? 13 August 2008 at