Tuesday, November 27, 2007

An Improbable Home

Author's note: this story that I wrote recently ran in excerpted form in Angie's list® magazine. I've been a member of Angie's list® for over two years now and it is a great way to find reputable contractors and handypeople. They have chapters in most metropolitan areas. This was submitted as part of a contest entitled, "Homestead History," asking "what makes your home unique."

I was brought up to believe that a home can be two types: the family you build and pull together to be with you in good times and bad; and the house where that family lives. Growing up in upstate New York, I never had any doubts that Mom would succeed in building the first type of home - even though times were tough in the early 1970s for a newly-divorced mother with two young boys, no credit and no real job experience. It was the second type of home - the physical one - that Mom bought as our first home that was never really meant to exist. Not only was Mom determined to make it exist, she made certain it thrived, even to this day.

After many years of apartment living and scrimping and saving, Mom decided it was time to buy a house. She really didn’t have a choice: the 3-bedroom apartment over a warehouse that cost $80 a month was being converted into a larger warehouse so we had to move. We looked at a few houses but they either were rife with problems or the price was way beyond our means. Then in early 1976, we got word that someone was selling a house on the outskirts of the village with 2 acres of land for an unbelievable price of $18,000. Still, that seemed like a lot of money to us back then.

On our first visit it became clear why the price was so low: the house was a Lustron Home. Lustron Homes were pre-fabricated houses manufactured between 1948 and 1950 to help solve the housing crisis confronting returning GIs right after WW II. The homes were made of “porcelain enameled steel” as they advertised - the concept was to sell a house that took 350 man hours to install and had no maintenance or redecorating issues: you could simply wipe down the panels with soap and water. There were lots of “new concepts” such as radiant panel heat from the ceiling, lots of “built-ins”, even a Thor washing machine that converted into a dishwasher! No bugs, no rot, no worries, no fuss, no muss. What more could an atomic age 1950s family want?

We knew the place needed work and thought most of it was cosmetic. But what we didn’t realize is what more could a 1970s family need? Upstate New York was no place for a Lustron Home - that we soon found out. The houses were intended more for the Sun-belt states with their mild climates and easy lifestyles. To us, Florida was warm winters, palm trees, ocean waves and relatives who only spent October thru April there, arriving like snow birds in their late model Cadillacs.

So, with a mortgage and a second mortgage that the seller was willing to provide, Mom signed on the dotted line and we moved in around the time of the Bicentennial celebration. Mom now had her security and her freedom and it was all wrapped up in a new home.

Our home was smack on the side of a small mountain, with 50 mph winter winds making sure that pipes would freeze, and hot steamy humid summers that would begin to corrode the areas of steel that weren’t so “porcelain enameled.” Summer appropriate windows that might as well be wire screens in the winter. And didn’t someone once say that “heat rises”? So how does radiant heat from ceiling panels work without some forced air system to make sure the lower extremities don’t freeze? No wonder that the previous owner only used it as a summer home when he came up from - guess where? Florida. I always thought it would be funny if he lived in a classic Northeast home like a New England salt box or a New York Dutch stone house down there and not a more suitable type, like a Lustron Home.

If anything, Mom was always resourceful: within five years and help from relatives along with learning how to use a hammer and how to cut wood, she was able to convert this “improbable home” into a great 1,000 sq ft living space. Before I left for college in 1980 she had insulated the entire house - walls and roof, paneled the outside with wood, replaced the roof, changed the rusty metal doors with bi-fold ones, and made so many other improvements that you couldn’t even recognize the place!

Mom was a genius to me in that she could take a house that just didn’t fit into its surroundings and seemed unlivable, at least on a year-round basis, and convert it into a home where all the relatives gathered at every holiday, where there were crazy graduation parties and summer cookouts, and where she would raise two boys before sending them off into the world. What better lessons could a son have than to know that anything was possible and to not allow anyone to tell you that you wouldn’t be able to accomplish something?

And Mom would spend the remainder of her days there, working many jobs, socializing with friends, entertaining her grandchildren - all before 2000 when Alzheimer’s Disease would come at the age of 58 and gradually remove all those memories - memories of making something out of almost nothing.

One way that I continue to honor all Mom’s efforts is to keep the house going even though I am over 800 miles away in Chicago. Now I have tenants who do as good a job at taking care of the house as my mother did and help with improvements such as a wood stove, new gutters, patches and repairs. And I see Mom every few weeks at the nursing home when I fly in. She doesn’t ask about the house any more and probably doesn’t remember what she accomplished with that crazy house and those two boys.


Tristan said...

What a great blog, Thomas! I haven't come across one devoted to family and family history like yours. Very interesting stuff! As someone who's had two grandparents and a great-grandparent-in-law pass away within the past year, I've realized the importance of documenting family history and memories. I wished I'd recorded conversations with my family members who've passed on about their lives and experiences; I guess hindsight's 20/20. At least I have the memories.

Anyway, I actually came across your site because I work at Angie's List and am host/producer of List-en up!, the authorized Angie's List podcast. I've interviewed several people from the home history contest that you reference, and I thought you and your readers might be interested in hearing audio interviews from some of the winners in our third episode, out Friday. Due to time constraints, I was unable to interview the family mentioned above, but you might find the other stories interesting... One of the winners even wrote a song about their home, which some folks here at the List recorded. The Homestead History song, podcast and pictures will be available at www.angieslistpodcasts.com.

Also, I'm considering doing an episode about documenting family memories, and you seem like a great Angie's List member to interview. If this is indeed a future episode topic, would you be interested in sharing your knowledge with us and our listeners? Thanks! - Tristan Schmid

Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

A great story and tribute to your Mom!

I grew up in a post WWII tiny ranch but I'd never heard of the Lustron's and so I looked into them a little more. After your description I was surprised that there were so many on the map. There is one for sale in N Syr. right now that is going for not much more than I paid to live out in the middle of nowhere. There is even on for rent at the Chautauqua Institution which is someplace I've always wanted to visit.

Nancy said...

What a great post about your mom and the little Lustron house. What a great mom you had to teach you so many lessons by her good example. I'm sorry she has Alzheimer's - what a heart-breaking disease - and at such a young age. Thanks for sharing.