Housing History for the Taking at Quantico

Lustron houses were put up at Quantico Marine Corps Base in the 1950s for military personnel.
Lustron houses were put up at Quantico Marine Corps Base in the 1950s for military personnel. (Clark Realty)
By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 23, 2006

A developer and preservationists are trying to save the pink, powder-blue and yellow "Easter egg houses" used by military personnel at the Quantico Marine Corps Base by giving most of them away.

Fifty-eight of the 1950s Lustron prefabricated houses will be free starting this summer to people who can figure out how to take them apart and cart them away. The homes must be moved to make room for about 1,100 two-story homes that Clark Realty Capital, the development and investment arm of Clark Construction Group LLC of Bethesda, and its partners are building on the base as part of a $240 million project.

The Lustron houses were built in the 1950s to ease the housing shortage after World War II. Made of enameled sheet metal, they were mass-produced in a factory in the Midwest and shipped in parts to buyers who assembled them. The houses sold for about $10,000 each.

Of the 2,500 Lustron houses that were made, about 1,500 are believed to be still standing. The largest collection is believed to be at Quantico, the base near Dumfries. The Marine Corps bought the houses in the 1950s and used them to house military families.

Everything in the houses except windows and the floor is made of steel, said Eleanor Krause, a preservationist in Alexandria who is working for Clark Realty to help save the houses. Pictures are commonly hung on walls using large magnets.

"They're like a time capsule of that era," Krause said. "They're a piece of 1950s Americana."

These days the houses are too small for most families, developers said. A three-bedroom model has about 1,000 square feet with no attic or basement.

When Clark got involved in the Quantico housing project three years ago, it worked out the deal with local preservationists to give away the houses. "We're not collecting money on these things," said Bereket Selassie, a development executive at Clark Realty. "Our number one goal is preservation."

Executives said they have about 150 e-mails so far from people expressing interest in the Lustron houses. Among those interested, company executives said, are preservationists, civic groups in cities that have taken in people who lost their homes in the Gulf Coast hurricanes, and people with allergies who hope a metallic home would be sneeze-free. A woman from a group in Arizona that supports those with severe allergies visited Quantico a few years ago to check out the houses, Selassie said. "She sat in one of the houses all day and didn't sneeze."

The houses can be taken apart and shipped, but developers warn that they haven't been disassembled in years. Preservationists said they are working with a former employee of the company that made the houses to put online a copy of a manual that explains how to take them apart.

Executives said they will award the homes in May, giving priority to museums, those proposing to display several of them together and others who say they will preserve them as housing.

"We want to get them to someone who is interested in using it as a house as opposed to selling it to someone for scrap metal," Selassie said.

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