How Do You Research a Company That No Longer Exists?

Sometimes additional information comes to light after we have published something. This recently happened in the May/June 2014 issue of Echoes, the Ohio Historical Society newsletter.

A Lustron house with a green roof.

A Lustron house with a green roof.

For a newsletter feature called “Ask the Staff,” I was recently asked by a visitor what color were the roofs of Lustron homes. After reviewing our archival collections about the Lustron Corporation and consulting the Lustron Preservation web site, I drew the conclusion that only green roofs were made for production models. It was noted that some houses across the country had roofs of different colors, but that this was a local decision, not necessarily a Lustron Corporation decision.

However, it seems the history behind the roofs is more complex than that. Working with Steve McLoughlin of the Whitehall Historical Society, it was brought to my attention that many Lustron houses across the country have roof colors other than green. Through his extensive research, McLoughlin has concluded that roof colors were assigned based on the color selected for the house, as he explains, “a standard equipment of sorts.”

This is the part where doing historical research gets tricky. When the company disbanded, their materials ended up in several different places due to lawsuits, bankruptcy sales, and destruction. At the Ohio Historical Society, we have several collections of Lustron Corporation material including the Lustron Homes Research Collection, call number MSS 1288, and the Lustron Corporation Records, call number MSS 861. These collections contain photographs of the houses with green roofs. However, no specific roof colors are mentioned in the records. How did these other colors come to be if they are not in the known archival records of the company?

The Lustron Corporation went through many changes in its short time. With the rising costs of the houses and the need to ramp up production, the company often made decisions that are not reflected in the archival material. At one point, the company advertised enameled paneling in eight different colors, but only produced four colors. They advertised three different models of houses, but produced only two and three bedroom Westchesters and two and three bedroom Newports. They never actually made a model called the Meadowlark. Is it possible they offered different roof colors and never advertised it? Probably! There seemed to be little consistency between what was advertised and recorded versus what was actually available.

Some owners have reported roof colors complementary to the colors offered for enameled paneling. However, some owners have reported roof colors and materials never offered from the Lustron Corporation in any of their products. How is this possible? Local developments and neighborhoods sometimes had housing color restrictions that Lustron homes did not meet and the houses may have been painted or altered to accommodate these restrictions. For example, the Lustron homes used at the United States Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia were majorly altered, including painting the roofs of the homes white.

A Lustron house with a painted white roof at the Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia.

A Lustron house with a painted white roof at the Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia.

As roofs became damaged over the years, sometimes home owners found a local source of porcelain enameled roof tiles or other type of replacement roof in colors those local companies could offer. McLoughlin worked on a Lustron house in New Orleans whose roof was composed of something other than Lustron parts. When asked, the owner explained that all of the roofs of Lustron homes in the city were comprised of this same material.

Through additional research, I have found two sources that hint multiple colors were available for roofs through the company. A 1948 Lustron advertisement explains, ”You have your choice of exterior color complementary combinations-all in non-glossy porcelain enameled steel which will never weather, stain, never need repainting, redecorating, or reroofing.”  This indicates combinations (plural) as a choice for both the roof and panels, but never actually states the colors. In MSS 1288, there is a transcript of an oral history interview conducted by the Lustron Preservation group with the former mayor of Louisville, Kentucky who slept in a model Lustron house. In his interview he states, “The outside of the home I saw was a soft, greenish blue. The pitched roof was grey.”

One of the oral history transcripts available in MSS

One of the oral history transcripts available in MSS 1288

So what conclusion can be drawn? Actually, I am not sure. We know that roof colors other than green exist on Lustron houses, but we may never fully understand the circumstances that lead to this since the company’s records were spread to many places or destroyed. As more sources come to light, stories may not be as simple as they seem, so we need to be flexible and open minded. We may never have a full answer. As one of my fellow curators would say, “History takes time.”

Emily Lang, History Curator

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