New ideas in housing are few and far between, but in the mid-1930s, Peoria was home to one truly innovative idea.
It was the brainchild of R.G. LeTourneau, noted founder of a major Peoria-based earthmoving equipment company, acquired first by WABCO and then by Komatsu. LeTourneau’s homes were developed and built at the earthmoving factory in Averyville, an early neighborhood in Peoria’s north valley. Dubbed “The Carefree Home,” its advertising brochures criticized other homes of the day as “ponderous, over-roomed houses of bulky beams and sheathings.”
The brochure went on: “In a streamlined age, too little leisured, the same old pattern will not do. The home to fit the day must be compact, complete, convenient, economical and efficient. Still a shelter, still a sanctuary, still the family center, it must afford the conveniences of a first-class apartment or hotel suite with the home spaciousness and individuality of a well-ordered private dwelling.
“It must be air conditioned, insulated not alone against cold and heat, but against, storm, dust, termites, flood, flame and other foes. And it must be a trouble-proof house—a house requiring a minimum of maintenance—a Carefree House.”
A Colony of Steel
The homes were all-steel, using patented double panels filled with insulation. An early form of air conditioning was provided by blowing air through a radiator filled with cold tap water. The floors and flat roofs were made of steel as well. Completely sealed, they were readily floated—a handy feature when a number of the homes were floated across the Illinois River from the factory to a location directly across the river.
In 1936, LeTourneau built the first steel housing system and community design in Peoria. Called the “All Steel Colony,” the community featured 23 three- to four-room houses that, together, were romantically referred to as “The Garden City of Tomorrow.”
Embossed, pressed steel panels were welded together to form the structural skin. Panels were used as the inner and outer skin to form the walls, roof and floor; the inner and outer panels were held apart with cross bracing and filled with insulation. The architect who worked with LeTourneau designed the houses with ﬂat roofs, steel floors, corner windows, air conditioning and an occupiable roof deck. They were sited facing each other so as to enclose a central pedestrian circulation space. This house system would later be marketed as dust-proof, termite-proof and carefree.
The homes came in three-, four- and five-room configurations, with a variety of room layouts offered. There were even plans to exhibit the “compact five-room for speedy age” house at the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco in 1939, although the plans never came to fruition. While it’s unknown how many homes were built in the late 1930s, production ceased as World War II approached and steel became scarce.
Then and Now
Today, more than 20 of these homes still exist in the Peoria area, blending into neighborhoods from East Peoria to West Peoria, with a significant cluster located near the water tower in Peoria Heights. They continue to be used as residential dwellings. Most have been modified with features such as front porches, pitched roofs, room additions and even second floors; however, the LeTourneau homes are readily identified by the consistent placement of their corner windows.
Because they are well-sealed, residents report that sweating can be a problem unless fresh air is introduced in some manner. Electric and plumbing systems are sealed between the steel panels and are virtually inaccessible. Thus, when repairs are needed, the old lines must be bypassed and new lines are run either inside or outside the house. Yes, the homes are all steel, and yes, they rust when not protected.
Ultimately, LeTourneau’s ideas on creating new techniques for production and new forms of housing evolved constantly from the mid-1930s until the mid-‘60s. The all-steel house may now be obsolete, but it remains a point of reflection for architects to consider how machine-crafted home design might provide hope for future prefabricated communities. iBi
An earlier version of this article first appeared in the September 2014 issue of the Central Illinois Landmarks Foundation newsletter. A special thanks to Tim Hartneck, CILF board member, whose archives provided material for the article.