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New Jersey Lustrons: Another Underappreciated Mid-Century Resource

June 8, 2009

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The Harold Hess Lustron House in Closter Boro, Bergen County, is again threatened. Preservation New Jersey listed “Lustrons” as one of the state’s 10 most endangered historic resources in 2000, citing the Hess House as one of the state’s significant examples. Prefabricated entirely of porcelain-enameled steel components, Lustrons were designed as an affordable, mass-producible solution to both the housing shortage and the surplus of steel that followed the end of the war. However, only 2,500 Lustrons were produced and distributed throughout the U.S. between 1946 and 1950, when the company succumbed to bankruptcy.

In 2004, the Harold Hess Lustron was threatened with redevelopment, and relocation was also discussed, but the house remains standing in its original location today. However, the current proposal before the Closter Boro Planning Board could change all that. The property’s owners have reportedly applied for variances to subdivide the property into three lots in order to develop two lots, one on either side of the Hess Lustron, with new housing. The owners have apparently agreed that if permitted to complete these plans, they will also preserve the historic house on the center lot. However, they need density variences, and if these are not approved, the owners have indicated potential interest in demolishing the Hess Lustron.

Lack of appreciation for mid-twentieth century architecture is all-too-common in today’s world. The fate of everyday examples, which are typically not aesthetically ornate or architect-designed, is particularly perilous. But these examples, particulalry in a case such as the Lustron’s, are often the best extant representations of the many changes in building and design trends, technology, and tastes that emerged during the mid-twentieth century. They therefore deserve to continue to represent these changes well into the future.  It is up to preservationists everywhere to educate the public about the importance of mid-century architecture and design, and the imperative need to assess this era as historically significant. Regardless of aesthetics or philosophy, we must help the world to see mid-tewntieth century architecture as the “wave of the future” for preservation, before this genre becomes a thing of the past.

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