Walter and Ruby Behlen House

Third Avenue Viaduct Trail

Agriculture & Ranching Architecture Industrialization and Deindustrialization

The front façade of the Behlen House is typical of mid-century modern design, with its low, wide footprint and clean, sharp lines.

The private home at 2555 Pershing Road in Columbus, Nebraska, defies easy architectural categorization. From the street, it has the clean, sharp lines and low, wide footprint characteristic of mid-century modern design. However, if you could see the sides of the home and the roof, the corrugated steel and aluminum construction materials would remind you more of agricultural buildings than Palm Springs, California.

The house was built in 1958 by Walter and Ruby Behlen. Walter Behlen (1905–1994) was equal parts inventor and salesman—he had the know-how to solve complicated mechanical problems and the good sense to spot an emerging market for his products. He founded Behlen Manufacturing Company in 1936, and its first venture was producing steel toe caps for work boots. Behlen then invented a new, less damaging fastener for egg-crate lids that allowed them to be reused before developing a variety of products to dry and store corn and grain so they wouldn’t rot. He came up with his biggest idea in 1950—corrugating steel, and later aluminum, to build strong prefabricated structures that maximized storage and minimized cost. [1]

Behlen’s sheds became ubiquitous in America’s rural landscapes. Before 1950, farmers relied on barns for their agricultural storage needs. The benefit of spacious, lofty barns was that you could house animals and their feed under one roof. As technological and economic changes in the early 20th century led farmers to specialize in a single crop or livestock, their storage also became more specialized. Behlen’s prefabricated sheds appealed to farmers because the corrugated metal frames were so strong that no framing or internal supports were needed within the structures, maximizing the space available inside and minimizing the cost to purchase and erect them. [2] Behlen buildings were also modular and customizable, making it convenient for buyers to get exactly what they needed and to expand later if they needed more space. Another advantage was that the structures were easy to assemble—all you needed were a screwdriver, a wrench, and a few strong hands. [3]

The buildings were so strong that one even survived a nuclear test. In 1955, the Federal Civil Defense Administration conducted Operation Cue to test how different building materials and consumer products would withstand an atomic blast. In a combined effort by government agencies and private industry, small hamlets were built in the Nevada desert; collectively they were referred to as “Doom Town” or “Survival City.” Walter Behlen and his brothers Mike and Gilbert installed two of their corrugated buildings in Doom Town, at varying distances from the tower where the test bomb, named Apple-2, would detonate. The Behlens bolted together 16-gauge galvanized steel panels to make the buildings’ walls and roofs, and then the structures were bolted down onto concrete footings. Alongside each Behlen building were two other industrial structures built by their competitors.

On May 5, the Apple-2 test commenced when a 29-kiloton bomb was detonated at Yucca Flat in the Nevada Test Site. When Walter, Mike and Gilbert walked through Doom Town the next day, they found that their building closer to ground zero (6,800 feet or approximately 1.25 miles) withstood the blast—unlike the buildings of their competitors. [4] “Weird New Shed Stood Up Best,” reported Popular Science Monthly . While the “steel-frame building roofed and walled with corrugated aluminum had been largely shredded,” and the “self-framing building made of channeled-steel panels had been staved in,” the Behlens’ “still stood firm and ready to provide shelter” despite a deep dent in the front of its roof and its blown-out windows and doors. [5] Proud of the strength of his invention, Behlen had the building brought back to Nebraska to use as a sales pitch for the product. At the 1955 Nebraska State Fair, visitors excitedly stepped inside this artifact of the Atomic Age. [6]

Behlen realized the factors that made his corrugated panel buildings appealing to farmers—their versatility, strength and affordability—extended to the construction of private dwellings. So he decided to use them to construct his new home. The Omaha architectural firm of Leo Daly mixed the steel panels with more luxurious wood and stone materials to create an 8,500-square-foot home that was at once expansive and cozy. From the travertine marble fireplace in the formal living room to the indoor pool, the house featured some of the most desirable amenities of the mid-century modern home. [7] Walter and Ruby enjoyed living and entertaining in their unique home for four decades. In 2004, Ruby (1913–2008) donated the house to the Nebraska State Historical Society, but legal and financial considerations led the organization to sell the house to a private owner. If you pass by to take a look, please stay on the public street and respect the owner’s privacy. [8]


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