Foster Gunnison and his Magic Homes


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By Connie J. Zeigler

Pre-fabricated housing pioneer, Foster Gunnison, cut his modernist teeth on lighting design. His works illuminated New York’s Empire State Building and Rockefeller Centre. The machine-age aesthetic of these buildings influenced design across the nation.

A few years after the Empire State Building opened in 1931, Gunnison turned his estimable talents and machine-age mindset in a new direction. He opened Gunnison Magichomes in 1935 and began the assembly-line production of pre-fabricated houses.
“Champion Home Size 3” one of the floor plans produced by Gunnison. This one is a three-bedroom plan. (From original Gunnison sales material)

Gunnison began this cutting-edge venture in New Albany, Indiana, an Ohio River town with good transportation networks and a long history of wood product production. His homes were built of 4-foot by 8-foot panels of insulated plywood. They were mass produced and elements were interchangeable in a number of different floor plans and extras. “Forbes” called Gunnison the "Henry Ford of housing." Raw materials arrived at the front door, the walls, ceiling and floors were factory finished, doors were hung and windows installed as the panels moved along the conveyor belts and out the rear door onto trucks headed all across the nation.

In 1937 the firm changed its name to Gunnison Housing Corporation, and in 1944 to Gunnison Homes, Inc. World War II temporarily halted production, but in 1944 Gunnison began construction of a new modern factory on Grant Line Road in New Albany. Before the new factory was complete, Gunnison sold 70% of the company to U. S. Steel. U.S. Steel kept Gunnison as general manager of the firm and went to work producing his homes at the new streamlined factory.

The Gunnison Factory in New Albany, Indiana, still looks much as it did when Foster Gunnison constructed it in 1944. (Photo by Connie Zeigler)
A “Time” magazine article in 1944 claimed that Gunnison’s “conveyor-belted production methods” produced all the parts of a house in 25 minutes. It also noted that Gunnison believed that success in the marketplace depended on, among other things, focusing sales in communities of 10,000 to 35,000 where building codes “are less onerous,” and keeping prices low enough for “lower-middle-class” buyers. Gunnison homes could be purchased for $2,800 to $5,000, depending on which options were chosen.
Now known as Gunnison Homes, Inc., the firm manufactured thousands of prefabricated homes selling them through dealers and shipping them across the nation. In 1953, Gunnison Homes, Inc. sold out to U.S. Steel, but the firm continued to produce homes at the New Albany factory under the new name, U.S. Steel Homes, until 1974.
Gunnison homes were constructed and still stand around the country, although it’s likely that most have been altered in some way, usually with new siding covering their original insulated-plywood exteriors. Chimneys are often the only remaining telltale exterior signs that the house was a Gunnison. Rectangular metal chimneys pierce the roofs on most models; decorative metal grates may remain beneath the gable as another tell-tale sign of a re-clad Gunnison.

The Gunnison Homes factory in New Albany still looks very much as it did when it was a cutting edge Machine-Age marvel in the 1940s. A careful observer might even notice the expanded Gunnison Home at the rear of the property, plywood walls still intact. The buildings and site are significant contributors to the history of housing in our nation.

A Gunnison home in Columbus, Indiana. (Photo by Louis Joyner)
A row of Gunnison Homes in Columbus, Indiana. Note the decorative metal grate beneath the gable on the house in the background. (Photo by Connie Zeigler)


Connie Zeigler is an architectural historian and owner of C. Resources, historians, based in Indianapolis, Indiana.