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The collapse of the home of the future

Amateur photographer Joe Gossman came to the house the same day we were there in July. He wanted to take an iconic picture of the Lustron home fearing it would be destroyed. He turned out to be right. In September he developed the picture using old school processing techniques he believes should be preserved like Lustron homes. (Photo: ABC7's Jay Korff)

Arlington County, with its picturesque neighborhoods, commands some of the steepest housing prices in the region.

So why in the world would someone give away a home here?

It started as a simple tweet, months ago, back in July. @SRtwofourfour posted a picture of a real estate sign stuck in the front yard of a home in Arlington at 2915 7th St. South that read “Free House You Haul.”

We rushed over to investigate.

Amateur photographer and Arlington resident Joe Gossman admitted to seeing the same tweet and set up his own camera. Gossman’s camera was as time tested as the house he would soon become obsessed with.

“This old thing you don’t see too many of them around anymore. They are from the 50’s. There aren’t too many left in the county let alone in the whole country. And so I thought why not take a chance and get a portrait of it to save for some sort of posterity or other,” says Gossman.

The tweet was a last ditch attempt to save a quirky piece of history.

“It sold not too long ago and then it became a rental property and then I read on the web that it was going to get torn down,” says Gossman.

“I heard that it was free provided that you haul it away. In the case of an all-steel house that weights a couple tons is a little easier said than done,” says Arlington County Historic Preservation Coordinator Cynthia Liccese-Torres.

Liccese-Torres says the history behind this diminutive house, called a Lustron home, begins with one of the boldest ideas of the 20th century.

Click here to see more photos.

It’s the late 1940s. The war ends spurring the Golden Age of Capitalism. Productivity swells, the middle class expands and GI’s and their families need homes.

”And I really think that the founders of the corporate really thought they were going to solve America’s housing crisis,” says Liccese-Torres.

From 1948 to 1950 the Lustron Corporation used a former aircraft factory in Columbus, Ohio to create all steel, prefabricated houses.

In ads they claimed the enamel coated exterior could “defy weather, wear and time” creating a “…new and richer experience for the entire family.”

But Americans didn’t buy into this visionary concept. The Lustron Corporation went out of business after selling only about 2,500 units.

Eleven of these homes ended up in Arlington County.

But after all these years, only three remain on this suburban landscape. The one standing at 2915 7th St. South is said to be in the best shape.

And that’s why Joe Gossman is here. He wanted to capture something he fears won’t survive the summer.

“A house this size will get torn down and something will get replaced that’s a lot bigger and will sell for a lot more money,” says Gossman.

In mid-July Gossman took that picture. A month later we checked back to see if the Lustron home had been purchased and removed. There were no takers for this giant jigsaw puzzle: a home that can literally be taken apart, moved and put back together.

Several years ago Liccese-Torres had a different Lustron in Arlington saved. It’s now on display at the Ohio History Center in Columbus: the birthplace of the Lustron.

Liccese-Torres says, “So you can open up the cabinets, peak in the drawers and understand how a 1950’s family would have lived in a house like that.”

But as summer’s swelter stepped aside for fall’s turn, ominous construction signs appeared on the 7th St. South property in Arlington.

Gossman was right. Without a buyer committed to dropping tens of thousands of dollars to dismantle and move this home, its fate was sealed.

In October, heavy construction equipment appeared ripping apart the Lustron. By late November the site had been cleared. No evidence of the Lustron remained.

Now Arlington has two Lustron homes.

Maybe the true visionary, in this case, was that amateur photographer who months earlier had the foresight to take a generation defining picture.

Months after snapping that picture Gossman finally got around to creating a final product.

“We’re at Northern Virginia Community College, the Alexandria campus in the photography department, ”says Joe Gossman.

Gossman was drawn to the Lustron’s built-to-last motto because that’s how he sees the old school process of film development.

So we followed Gossman on the final leg of this Lustron’s story.

Gossman says, “And now we’re going to take the fully prepped negative and go into the dark room and print it.”

And when he emerged this long process finally came to an imaginative end. If you look closely enough you can see Gossman’s ghostly reflection in a picture of a place forever silenced.

“I think it’s beautiful. You end up being a historian without trying.” says Gossman.

The historic footnote here could be a sobering one. The economics of a previous generation led to the demise of the Lustron Corporation.

It may be up to this generation to decide if they value the Lustron home, an enamel-plated dinosaur, enough to prevent its extinction.

The property owner declined to comment on camera for this story but did say a new, larger home will likely go on the plot.

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