Charles Mintz framed the Lustron portrait, “Detroit, MI: Miles and Terrence,” in baked enamel, a material similar to that used in Lustron Homes.

Photographer Mintz captures different kind of home

By Carlo Wolff

In the late summer of 2012, Cleveland photographer Charles Mintz presented “Precious Objects,” a show of people with their favorite things, at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood. Now he’s trained his deadpan, open-minded eye on one of the most important parts of people’s lives: their home.

Mintz just published “Lustron Stories,” a book of photographs about a very unusual kind of residence. Published by Trillium Books, a new imprint of The Ohio State University Press, it’s both intimate and affectless. Mintz’s photographs, like the smooth surfaces of Lustron Homes, are oddly opaque yet remarkably expressive.

The $49.95 book is available at Loganberry Books on Cleveland’s Larchmere Boulevard. Mintz has mounted two exhibitions drawing on his Lustron photos and is looking for a local venue to showcase the project.

Lustron Homes are prefab houses of porcelain-baked, enamel-coated steel manufactured in Columbus between 1948 and 1950. About 2,500 were sold, mostly 1,100-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath bungalows, to buyers all over the country, from Los Alamos, N.M. to Maine to Miami. About 1,500 survive.

They sold, without land, for $7,000, or close to $71,000 in today’s dollars. In some cases, they’ve remained with the original family. Mintz photographed 125 between 2011 and 2014. Their owners let him into their lives. While the focus is the people, the context is equally eloquent. These photos are nothing if not balanced. Not to mention lived in.

The Lustron project derived from one Mintz embarked on in 2009 to photograph foreclosed homes in every neighborhood in which he’d lived. His research showed that many had been built after either World War I or World War II.

Since he, like Lustron, was born in 1948, “this is history through my lifetime,” said Mintz, who owns a stucco house in Cleveland’s Detroit Shoreway neighborhood. “The project is about the meaning of having your own home.”

Three of the photographs feature members of the original families, including the cover photo of Clementine and her mother, Anita, in Oak Park, Mich.

In that one, there’s the woman who bought the house, Mintz said. “The other story is the daughter who grew up in the house, which I find fascinating. We all remember, most of us, the home we spent the bulk of our childhood in. The house I grew up in in Cleveland Heights was a wooden house but it was essentially the same as these: a two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow built in 1949.”

Lustron Homes sold to a target audience of nondisabled, heterosexual, working-class families, Mintz said. It was the time of “Leave It to Beaver,” of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” before the government began to build the interstate system in 1956.

Assembling a Lustron Home might take as few as 350 man hours, he said. But getting the pieces of these low-maintenance, if problematic, homes (you couldn’t nail a picture to a wall, for example) from Columbus to their destinations could be daunting, as semis hauling them had to travel through towns, not to mention on challenging roads. If you had to carry a Lustron Home to, say, Topeka, Kan., you’d have to travel US 40, which in some places was “not much better than a dirt road,” Mintz said. And the semi would have to return to Columbus – empty.

In addition, Lustron ran on money borrowed from the Reconstruction Finance Corp., a federal agency designed to provide economic stimulus, Mintz said.

In “The Idea of Home,” the essay that ends “Lustron Stories,” Mintz says he worked with Ohio History Connection, a Columbus nonprofit and the state’s historical society. Armed with a skeletal database of Lustron Home owners, Mintz wrote “hundreds and hundreds” of letters, eventually connecting with the subjects of these photographs.

“It’s very hard to find volunteers to participate in projects,” he said, “but when you do, with few exceptions, they’re remarkably generous people.” CV

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 23, 2016.

Lead image: Charles Mintz framed the Lustron portrait, “Detroit, MI: Miles and Terrence,” in baked enamel, a material similar to that used in Lustron Homes. Photo | Carlo Wolff.

A look at some of the artwork inside WOLFS Gallery. Photo by Jonah L. Rosenblum.

Longtime businesses – galleries, retailers and restaurants – coupled with an infusion of festivals help Larchmere maintain its status as an arts capital of Northeast Ohio

By Jonah L. Rosenblum

The arched bookshelves at Loganberry Books catches customers eyes as soon as they walk in. Photo by Michael C. Butz.

The arched bookshelves at Loganberry Books catches customers eyes as soon as they walk in.
Photo by Michael C. Butz.

Larchmere, a district that has long stood out for its arts and antiques, as well as its lack of chain stores, has maintained its identity – and charm – even in the face of tremendous change in its surrounding neighborhoods.

That’s largely a good thing.

It hasn’t experienced the infusion of renowned restaurants that its neighbor, Shaker Square, has, nor has there been an Uptown-like building boom like that of nearby University Circle. But neither has it experienced the decline that Buckeye, a once-thriving Hungarian neighborhood, has over the years.

Instead, Larchmere has maintained its spot as an arts capital of Northeast Ohio.

“It is perpetually changing and forever the same,” says Harriett Logan, who has owned Loganberry Books on Larchmere Boulevard for the last 21 years.

She says the neighborhood, which straddles Cleveland’s eastern border and Shaker Heights, has been “up and coming” for a long time – “we’ve been on that ledge for decades” – and has somehow remained on that ledge.

However, the addition of annual festivals like Larchmere PorchFest, the Larchmere Festival and the Holiday Stroll in recent years, and the 2014 completion of an artistic streetscape project overseen by LAND Studio, suggest positive momentum that may just help push the neighborhood over that ledge.

Just ask Larchmere denizens Heide Rivchun, owner of Conservation Studios, who says she gets visitors from all over Northeast Ohio, or Michael Wolf, owner of WOLFS Gallery, who like Logan has witnessed the neighborhood’s ups and downs. “It was the arts and antiques that essentially stabilized the community,” he says. “It’s the reverse of what usually happens.”

A walk down Larchmere Boulevard carries one past windows replete with antique chairs, fine paintings and odd collectibles. Every storefront tempts the eye.

Most of the buildings are brick and old-fashioned, and certainly the neighborhood is marked, quite proudly, by its lack of chain institutions. There are outliers – an auto shop tucked in among the galleries – but that’s OK because Larchmere is not about one look, it’s about nooks and crannies and interesting sights.

WOLFS is a fitting starting point. Perched on the boulevard’s eastern border, the gallery features a piece of distracting art right on the grassy lawn outside its doors.

It’s as if to tell passersby, “Welcome to the art world.”

On a Thursday afternoon, Wolf is standing on the gallery’s second-floor open balcony finishing lunch. Paintings and sculptures surround him, many of them spectacular.

Among the works are those by Clarence Holbrook Carter and Carl Gaertner. In one case, Carter’s mammoth tarantula painting is mounted just above Gaertner’s pig. It’s spectacular, as if the former is about to munch on the latter.

Gaertner’s depiction of Chagrin Falls is another showstopper, not just for the falls, but also for the painting’s unusual portrayal of other painters sitting around the falls.

Beyond WOLFS, the boulevard is lined – for 10 blocks – with small shops selling art, furniture and collectibles.

Sometimes, places aren’t that clearly defined. Take Loganberry Books, which has more than 100,000 tomes, some occupying spectacular arched bookshelves. But it also hosts art and music events. The first Wednesday of every month features an art opening.

“(The artists) find us, for the most part,” Logan says.

The second and third Wednesdays feature community conversations, while the fourth features book club meetings. Not to be outdone, the first Thursday means an open microphone for musicians, the second an open microphone for writers.

To some extent, what defines an arts neighborhood is the answer to a simple question: Are there enough institutions for someone to walk around aimlessly and enjoy?

“Critical mass is absolutely the key,” Wolf says.

It’s the key to Larchmere’s success, though Wolf advises that potential visitors come Thursday through Saturday. Small businesses along Larchmere Boulevard aren’t always open seven days a week.

For a while, Larchmere did experience a decline. Businesses, notably Sedlak Interiors, left the neighborhood, and Wolf said there was a time when you couldn’t get into the boulevard’s famed and beloved Academy Tavern on a Friday night, implying that’s no longer the case.

And yet he says resilient Larchmere is on the rise once again. Among the promising developments is the move of Holzheimer Interiors Incorporated, a longtime Cleveland designer, to Larchmere. Meanwhile, the long vacant Sedlak Building is being converted into a mixed-use space, with artisan shops, perhaps including a blacksmith and glassblower, on the first floor and residences above.

“Even though it has undergone a lot of transformation, it still maintains its identity as the arts and design district,” Wolf says. “What had transpired over decades is it became less and less known in the region and it’s now being rediscovered by young folks who really had no idea there was such a collection of unique and really fine small shops, galleries and even restaurants.” CV

On stage

The Larchmere PorchFest has grown to become a destination event. The annual festival, scheduled this year from 1 to 10 p.m. June 18, features 30 different musicians playing on porches throughout the neighborhood, along with a couple of headline acts. It is not the only festival in the area – but it’s arguably the most popular.

“While there are other annual things, PorchFest is certainly the best,” says Michael Wolf, owner of WOLFS Gallery.

Like many things in Larchmere, a boulevard of ambitious and dedicated individual proprietors, its PorchFest is the result of close collaboration among a group of about eight people.

“It’s such a pleasure to work with an organization that works,” says Heide Rivchun, owner of Conservation Studios. “It’s a really tight group of people. Everyone takes their job very seriously.”

Genres for PorchFest range from Americana to funk, hip-hop, rock and world.

– Jonah L. Rosenblum

Lead image: A look at some of the artwork inside WOLFS Gallery. Photo by Jonah L. Rosenblum.