When Dirk Fletcher moved to Brookfield 24 years ago, he noticed a strange-looking little home nearby on Sunnyside Avenue. The boxy ranch wasn’t sided with wood or shingles and wasn’t made of brick. It was built of porcelain-enameled steel panels – even the roof was made of steel shingles.
He would soon learn the house, now demolished, was one of more than a dozen “Lustron” homes built in Brookfield during the year 1949 and would in time fuel a bit of an obsession.
In the summer of 2018, Fletcher, who has an M.F.A. in filmmaking and digital imaging and was chairman of the photography department at Harrington College of Design for 12 years, embarked on The Lustron Project, seeking out and photographing more than 350 of the roughly 1,500 Lustron homes that remain standing across 36 states.
“My goal is to hit 370, which will be 25 percent of the remaining homes,” said Fletcher in an interview last week.
You can view a dozen photographs from The Lustron Project through the end of 2021 in the lobby of the Riverside Township Hall, 27 Riverside Road. Titled “Porcelain Utopia: Mid-Century Lustron Homes in Illinois and Beyond,” the exhibition is the most recent at the township hall curated by the Riverside Arts Center.
“His photos are so sensitive and I really appreciate the perspective he has,” said Liz Chilsen, executive director of Riverside Arts Center, who was introduced to Fletcher’s Lustron series by a mutual friend, artist Stephanie Graham.
It’s the first “fine art” exhibition of Fletcher’s work though he’s worked as a professional photographer his entire adult life. Before teaching at Harrington College of Design, which was absorbed by Columbia College in 2015, Fletcher spent five years as staff photographer at the Museum of Science and Industry in the collections department. He now works as a technical representative for Canon USA.
Throughout his adult career and even before – Fletcher learned about cameras and photography from his father, who specialized in corporate and industrial photography – he was taking photos. Favored subjects are transportation (trains and airplanes) and architecture, photos which are highly formal and, at times, abstract.
“I always joke that I don’t like subjects to talk. I’m not a portrait photographer,” Fletcher said.
While that might be the case, he has often found himself talking to the owners of the Lustron homes he has shot in places as close as a few blocks away in Brookfield to those in isolated rural Ohio and Indiana.
“A lot of times people have come out and asked what I’m doing, and once I tell them what I’m doing they’re all super into it,” said Fletcher. “Some have invited me in … and you hear all these weird, unique stories.”
While some Lustron homes still appear largely as they did when they were built in the late 1940s, just as many have been dramatically altered to hide their metal cladding or have had their steel roofs torn off and replaced with more conventional materials.
There are a few photos in the exhibit where the homes look almost as fresh as they day they were built, their space-age stylings blending in with the contemporary landscape. Others appear austere and unwelcoming, others in disrepair or even abandoned amid a barren landscape.
No matter what’s happened over the years, the homes are each a time capsule, a glimpse at the post-World War II housing shortage and the lengths to which builders and engineers went to manufacture and deliver affordable, mass-produced housing.
In 1947, Chicago entrepreneur Carl Strandlund – whose experience included constructing prefabricated gas stations — converted a wartime aircraft factory in Whitehall, Ohio (a suburb of Columbus) into the manufacturing plant for Lustron homes.
Each house comprised more than 3,000 pieces, which could be loaded onto one specially built trailer and trucked to the building site, where it would be erected on a concrete slab. Because of the factory’s location, most Lustron homes can be found in the upper Midwest, though they’ve been found in places as far flung as Devils Lake, North Dakota, and Los Alamos, New Mexico.
In Illinois, the greatest concentration of Lustron homes was in Lombard, though several of those have since been demolished. Brookfield is another place where you can still find several Lustron homes.
According to a story by Brookfield historian Chris Stach, published in the Landmark in 2001, the village board in 1949 approved plans to build 15 Lustron homes in the village, with six of them between Ogden Avenue and the BNSF railroad tracks, west of Oak Avenue. Another handful are located near Lincoln School.
The homes, according to Stach’s article, were not exactly greeted with enthusiasm by buyers and took longer than advertised to build. By 1950, the Lustron Corporation was out of business. In the three years of its existence some 2,500 homes were made, of which about 1,500 remain.
If you’re interested in seeing exactly where all of the Lustron homes were built, you can visit lustronlocator.com.
Asked why he was attracted to the quirky relics of mid-century design and engineering, Fletcher said it’s really just that, exactly.
“I look at it as a weird little portal back into the early ’50s,” Fletcher said. “I always imagine what it was like with the kids running around. You read the advertising pieces for Lustron – it’s literally a guy smoking a cigar and his wife using a hose to clean the house down — and there’s something nostalgic about that.
“So a lot of what I’m doing is try to incorporate some of the neighborhood or surroundings to try to tell the story of where these houses are now, because it’s a weird, unique barometer on how that neighborhood has fared in 70 years.”