“If you can buy a home of any kind, you can buy a Lea Steel Home! Paul R. Williams, Consulting Architect.” (Ad in Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1936)
From 1890 until the Great Depression, American steel manufacturers investigated how the industry could tap into the growing middle class desire to own a home. Neil Poulson, a Brookline ornamental ironworker, built the first steel house in this country, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that metal homes became more than an experiment. Early structures were expensive and too complex for ordinary workmen to assemble and the steel building materials scarce. With a growing $3 billion home building industry, steel companies were motivated to solve the many technical, distribution and sales-promotion obstacles.
By 1938 over 500 steel panel homes had been constructed in the United States. One of the leading manufacturers was Lea Steel Homes of Los Angeles. The company’s patented Lea System of construction streamlined the entire building process and allowed prefabricated metal clad sections to be shipped from Los Angeles to anywhere in the U.S. Local workmen could bolt the house together on-site using “channel joist and stud members.” The final assembled product was then placed on poured concrete floors. (Architectural Forum, July 1938) The Lea Company promotional literature highlighted the positives of steel construction: permanence, fire safe, shrink and termite proof, resistant to dry rot and earthquake resistant. Lea Steel Homes selected Paul R. Williams to design their models and floor plans. Williams was already well-known in Los Angeles for his ability to create homes of any size, for any dream.
In the 1930s Nevada apple farmer Roland Giroux decided to supplement his income by building single family home-like apartments for Reno’s transient work force, visiting tourists and those seeking a divorce. His El Reno Apartments, built on one and one-half acres, used the Paul R. Williams' designs from the company's catalog. The compact housing development consisted of 15 furnished units. Local labor assembled Giroux’s rental property quickly and economically. With 70% of the actual building already completed at the company’s Los Angeles factory, only finishing work and anchoring were done on-site. Though interior finishes looked traditional, closer examination revealed everything was metal. From the frame to the gutters to the vertical siding, everything was steel.
Units at El Reno were seldom empty and records show that Giroux grossed approximately $17, 820 a year. Renting for $100 per month the two bedroom units measured 21 x 38 feet. (A one bedroom unit rented for $20 less.) The identical Williams' designed homes saved space by separating the bedrooms with the living room. Compact kitchens with built-ins, one full bathroom and small lavatory also conserved space. As land values increased, the Lea Steel System allowed Giroux to sell the land under El Reno and move the entire complex. He only had to “loosen a few bolts, pick up bag and baggage and operate his house hostelry somewhere else.” (Architectural Forum, November 1939)