Friday, October 16, 2015

The Monolithic House (1946)

Before there was Lustron, New Orleans entrepreneur Andrew Higgins sought to manufacture a porcelain-coated steel building system. Invented by California architect Maury I. Diggs  and further developed by Higgins' research department, the ferro-enamel product could be utilized to build a house for as little as $3,000. Higgins hoped that he could re-purpose the Michaud plant to manufacture his trademarked Thermo-Namel to meet the nation's demand for affordable post-war housing.

Diggs visited New Orleans in March 1946 to help erect the first Thermonamel structure at Higgins' Industrial Canal site (press photograph above). The prefabricated enameled low carbon iron sheets were set up hollow with a 2.5" cavity that was later filled with Thermo-Con, a cellular concrete insulation that Diggs also invented. Once the Thermo-Con hardened, the building was "cemented" into place. Both Higgins and Diggs referred to the resultant structure as "monolithic."(1)

The completed demonstration house had a flat roof that extended beyond the exterior walls. Diggs designed the small residence and its surrounding garden walls, all comprised of Thermonamel. The material was also used for trim, rounded corners, gutters, shingles and floor tiles. Window openings were ordinary casements sealed in rubber and installed after the Thermo-Con pour. A unique feature was a circular tub, shown in the lower right-hand corner room above.(2)

The Higgins family acquired lots in the new Lake Vista subdivision with the intent to build their own Thermonamel residences. World War II veteran M.J. McLaney hoped to construct a Thermonamel Steak House on Air-Line Highway, and enlisted New Orleans architects Sporl & Maxwell to design an automobile-friendly scheme.

(1)"1st Higgins House Now Being Built." New Orleans States 20 March 1946.

(2) Hartshorn, Richard. "Higgins Building First New House." The Times Picayune 20 March 1946.

Image above:  Unidentified photographer. Going Up. Press photograph. March 1946. Visual Materials Collection, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

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