Monday, July 30, 2012

Modular Housing History - The Gunnison Home

Gunnison Magic Homes was one of the first really successful system housing firms in the United States. By 1940, it was the "nation's largest home builder."  In the pre-World War II era that may have been true. It's safe to say that the company sold thousands of homes over the course of its history.

The home's designer, Foster Gunnison, was a lighting designer who was involved in the construction of New York City's Radio City Music Hall and the Empire State Building. In 1936, he opened Gunnison Housing Corp. in New Albany for its centralized location.  Focusing on affordability, Gunnison standardized parts to use assembly line manufacturing methods. It was said a complete home came off the conveyors every 25 minutes.

From his factory, which still stands in New Albany, Indiana, Foster Gunnison produced pre-fab homes built with insulated plywood panels in an assembly-line system. Forbes called him the "Henry Ford of housing."  Raw materials arrived at the front door, the walls, ceiling and floors were factory finished, doors hung and "windows installed, washed and screened" as the panels moved along the conveyor belts and out the rear door onto trucks headed all across the nation.

Gunnison engineers designed an interchangeable wall panel that would fit 12 different house models by 1937. Gunnison could undersell a conventionally constructed house by almost 25%. A 1954 sales brochure states the homes sold for $8750 to $13,000, depending on options and floorplans, which could include breezeways and attached garages.

Take a look around any neighborhood built in the 1940s or 1950s and odds are good you'll see at least a few houses built from a Gunnison kit.

Prefabricated houses -- cheaper to build and just as durable as their traditionally site built counterparts -- popped up across the country, but they had their genesis in New Albany, Indiana.

In April 1944, U.S. Steel acquired 70 percent interest in the company, and Gunnison stayed on as general manager. In 1946, the New Albany factory was expanded and updated. By 1950, it was producing 14 basic home designs.

When Gunnison retired in 1953, U.S. Steel bought out his remaining interest and changed the name to United States Steel Homes. The plant, which still stands, closed in 1974.

Gunnison homes were a hit because they were moderately priced, well-built and, thanks to a variety of add-on features, could be custom-made to accommodate families of different sizes and means.  Gunnison Homes were marketed through franchised dealers across the country and by 1950 came in 11 sizes, from a boxy 24-by-24-foot model with kitchen, living-dining room, two bedrooms, bath and utility room to a spacious four-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath model. All had built-in bedroom closets and linen closets. Traditional styles -- Cape Cod, colonial and ranch -- were chosen to boost consumer confidence in the novel prefab building method.

Gunnison employed about 300 people and claimed to have sold 4500 homes in 38 states by 1941. Gunnison was written about in Popular Science and national architecture and engineering magazines, but they aren't very well-known today outside of New Albany.

Looking at the floor plans from some of the modular home factories today, you have to ask yourself if we’ve really come very far since Foster Gunnison started building homes?


Anonymous said...

I live in a mid 50's USS Steel pre fab home. It is 3 bedroom with basement. My home has been painted indoors and has had windows replaced. If anyone has paintng questions, I took some good advice and have lovely walls now.

Anonymous said...

I have purchased a 3 bedroom mid 50's also; I am remodeling new windows metal roof furnace and now new bath with glass block window and a bath in the basement with a large finished room added crown molding upstairs living and bed rooms.
Would appreciate any advice painting and otherwise please?
Morgantown WV

Michele said...

My grandparents had a Gunnison Home in Springfield, MA. I have the "tag" hanging on my wall.

Natalie said...

Looking at purchasing a Gunnison but wondering about window replacement options.

Unknown said...

My family grew up in a 1950 Gunnison Home. My father added an addition to the back in 1958 adding 2 bedrooms, basement, dining room closets. The bedroom was for his daughter and new twin boys. My dad totally rebuild the house, doubling the walls, new siding, windows, Oak woodwork and New English Oak Kitchen. My folks home is living proof the successful construction of the 50's prefab. and the potential to remodel and redo is unlimited. For our family it was money and they did alittle at a time. By the 70's the house was like new and much fancier. We loved our gunnison home and I have the registration plate in my family room. 822 Edward Street, Neenah, WI 54956. They were boxy but dad put redwood cable ends on the west and east side to unbox the house so to speak.They move in Sept. 15, 1957. Neenah had a Gunnison Dealership.

Unknown said...

Currently live in a US Steel home in NJ with the original plate mounted in our living room. Been a solid home, but we just recently put it on the market.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in a Gunnison home in Marietta Ohio in the "70's. and my grandparents had one they'd bought in "64. They've both been remodeled as my father, brother and I were in construction.
They were so easy to work on and so sturdy, air tight and well built!
We sadly need an affordable home like these today!

Unknown said...

We helped my daughter and son in law paint the entire inside of their gunnison house. He sanded deglossed used 2 coats of primer and two coats of paint. The paint is chipping in many places with normal use. Any advice?
Are their special considerations in remodeling a gunnison?

Anonymous said...

I am looking to buy a Gunnison home size 2DG. The plaque on the kitchen wall has number 12217-1 and a date of 5/26/1949. I would appreciate any suggestion for resources concerning this home.
Looking to lighten some of the paneled walls. Any suggestions?

Rusty Pietrzak said...

I lived in a U.S. Steel home starting in the Fall of 1955, in Dayton,OH, and I'd love to get the blueprint for the house: CO-7121. I have the booklet that came with the house!

sue spurrier said...

I live in a Gunnison home that my in-laws built in 1950. We bought it from their estate and have lived here since 1984 and pretty much have remodeled it by additions, new windows, and siding. I always hated the plywood walls and ceilings so we just put drywall over the existing walls and ceilings. We still have the wall tag hanging on the dining room wall (which was an addition) and the ornate oval metal vents. Home has been in the ownership of 1 family now since 1950 and I hope my children will want to live here when I pass. Great home that has had a lot of love over the years.

Unknown said...

Lived in Fairless Hills on the golf course. Right near Fairless Works steel mill which closed as we read in this article. Loud remodeling this house. It was so sturdy it was easy to cut through a wall and reframe on the inside with the new wall. They inch and 3/8 insulation might have been sufficient when they first started building these houses but another to buy for wall inside really helped one the house. Did a lot of custom work on the house and always loved it. Never cared much for the plywood walls. But they were certainly a good base to start construction on the sturdy home

Anonymous said...

KM from Long Island....Bought the same 2 bedroom house as pictured above 50 years ago. Love it! The plywood walls are well built and it’s a sturdy house. I’ve sheet rocked over the plywood walls with 1/4” to hide the seams. When vinyl siding the outside I added rigid insulation board, bringing them out to standard 2x4 wall thickness and added standard sized insulated windows. As an original starter house for us, over the years, I also built the house out adding a third bedroom, dining room, den, mud room and garage.

Unknown said...

My parents, grandmother and I lived in a Gunnison house in the early 1950's. It was in New Albany, Indiana.
I was too young to recall a lot, but I remember it was yellow with white trim. There were two bedrooms. It also had a Rumpus Room. My mother installed a blackboard on one wall. I remember spending a lot of time there, coloring and reading.
The living room seemed huge to my four year old eyes. We had "blonde" furniture, even the TV.
Hadn't thought much about it in years.
Good memories.