Phyllis Bridges remembers LeTourneau Heights, where she grew up, as a “sweet little neighborhood.” Her mother planted daylilies and irises in the front yard and hung green drapes to match the shag carpet in the living room. The boxy design of the family’s concrete house was unusually plain, almost primitive-looking, compared to most other homes in Longview, but it was all Phyllis had ever known, and so it seemed normal to her. Sure, it was tricky to hammer nails into the walls to hang pictures, and if the family turned off the heat before going out of town in the winter, the place never fully warmed back up. But her mother loved living there and vowed to remain even after Phyllis’s father died in 1973. “She always said, ‘I’m going to stay here to the end,’ ” the 69-year-old told me recently.
Five decades later, the family’s former residence is one of just two houses remaining of what was once known as LeTourneau Heights—eighty houses built in 1947 beside the R.G. LeTourneau factory on the industrial southern edge of the then-booming East Texas oil town. Bridges’s father, Seabern Phillips, drove trucks for the LeTourneau company.
Activists are fighting to spare the homes from being demolished, even though merely from looking them, it’s difficult to discern why they’re worth saving. The two rectangles of concrete, capped by flat roofs, sit across a road from each other. Peeling paint and torn window screens have rendered them eyesores. The more decrepit of the two, beside a parking lot for employees of the still-operating factory, has plywood covering one window and a satellite dish still mounted on its roof. Nearby, the concrete pad of a third home, razed last year, hasn’t yet succumbed to weeds.
Still, these aren’t just any old run-down houses. They’re Tournalaids, named after the mechanical device used to build them—the Tournalayer, which could “lay” a 784-square-foot home in a single day “like an egg,” as one company brochure put it.
“Unless you know the wizardry behind the house, they’re really not all that interesting,” says Conor Herterich, the endangered properties manager for Preservation Texas. “But the story isn’t in the aesthetics; it’s in the technology behind the design.”
Today the idea of a house-making rig invokes visions of 3D printing, with machines as big as dinosaurs squirting proprietary concrete mixes from the ground up to construct homes in as little as 24 hours. Texas has become a nexus for the technology.
The Vulcan—a 15-foot-tall, 46-foot-wide machine designed by Austin-based Icon—erected the world’s first permitted 3D-printed house in 2018; it’s since printed eleven more houses and has a queue of other projects, including a hundred-home neighborhood along a branch of the San Gabriel River in Georgetown. Meanwhile, in Houston, Cobod’s BOD2—a modular rig that can stand up to 33 feet tall and 50 feet wide—is constructing the country’s first multistory 3D-printed house, which will be ready by early next year. As impressive as these machines are, the Tournalayer outpaced them by decades.
Invented in 1944, the Tournalayer stood 24 feet tall, 40 feet wide, and 48 feet long—and weighed 85 tons, inclusive of the house molds it carried. It was the brainchild of Robert Gilmour LeTourneau, an idiosyncratic businessman and Christian evangelist who settled in Longview and lent his name to many of his machines (as well as the workers who made them, dubbed Tournahands).
Born in Vermont in 1888, LeTourneau was an seventh-grade dropout and serial inventor who eventually secured 299 patents, many for hulking instruments of demolition, including Tournadozers, Mountain Movers, and Jungle Crushers. He also created the Scorpion, the world’s first jack-up oil rig, in 1955 for Zapata Petroleum, a company cofounded by future president George H. W. Bush. By then, LeTourneau was churning out machinery at five U.S. factories and two others abroad, in Australia and England.
The Tournalaid was LeTourneau’s answer to a housing shortage that was declared a national emergency in the mid-twentieth century. Nearly two hundred companies then hawked prefabricated homes in attempts to fill the unmet demand, including schemes by Buckminster Fuller and Frank Lloyd Wright. LeTourneau made his own prefabs, from steel, as early as 1936, and he installed more than a hundred of them near his factories in Georgia and Illinois to house workers. But amid World War II steel restrictions, he hit on the idea that set him apart.
Unlike the cookie-cutter houses it produced, the Tournalayer was a one-of-a-kind machine handcrafted with welding torches. To create a basic two-room house, a crane placed two well-oiled steel molds—which looked like giant, upside down loaf pans—beside each other on a base. Each measured 8 feet tall, more than 11 feet wide, and 32 feet long—essentially the dimensions of the two interior rooms they’d create. To the outsides of these molds, workers attached door- and window frames for the concrete to flow around, as well as reinforcing steel mesh and spaces for outlet and electrical conduit boxes.
Then one larger mold, open at the top to allow concrete to be poured through, was placed over the first two molds. A mixer dumped in forty cubic yards of concrete, which oozed through the cavities between the molds to form five-inch walls and an eight-inch-thick roof. The next day, workers entered through a roof vent and turned a crank, retracting the inner molds, and the Tournalayer picked up the rest and carried it to the house site, where the outer mold finally came off. Finishing touches included laying pipes for plumbing, pouring floors, and slapping on paint.
Between 1944 and 1960, Tournalayers built more than six hundred houses. Contractors put them to work in Corpus Christi and El Paso; in Arizona, California, and New York; in Argentina and Brazil; even in Israel and Morocco. LeTourneau himself used them to construct missionary colonies in Liberia and Peru. And he built housing near two of his factories—in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and in Longview.
LeTourneau settled in Longview in 1946, after touring the town by plane at the invitation of a local businessman. He took notice of the abandoned Harmon General Hospital, which had housed wounded soldiers and German prisoners of war and was conveniently located beside a railroad. It was a perfect spot for establishing a technical education institute, his wife, Evelyn, said. The federal government sold him the 156-acre complex for $1. Just up the street, he established his factory and LeTourneau Heights.
Eventually LeTourneau lost interest in the Tournalayer, partly because he never figured out how to properly insulate the homes the machine built, says Everett Henderson, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Tournalaids at the University of Florida in 2015. As the housing crisis eased, other projects, such as the jack-up oil rig, drew LeTourneau’s attention.
The bit-by-bit demolition of LeTourneau Heights began in the late sixties, when the company decided it “just didn’t want to be landlords anymore,” says Dale Hardy, an “unofficial” company historian who began working at the Longview plant 34 years ago. Bridges was in junior high when her father’s employer began asking its tenants to either move out or buy their homes. Her family bought, in 1968, but “if you didn’t, they knocked down the houses,” Bridges says. “They would just come in with some of their equipment and knock them down, then the lot stayed clear.”
After LeTourneau’s death in 1969, the company was sold and resold various times. Each new owner tore down a few more houses, Hardy says. In 2009, he asked the factory’s then-owner, LeTourneau Technologies, about saving one of the Tournalaid houses and placing a historical marker out front, but the company didn’t want to deal with it.
Hardy writes parts manuals for the company that has owned the factory since 2017, Komatsu Mining, a subsidiary of the Japanese construction technologies firm Komatsu, which employs 640 workers there, making it one of Longview’s largest employers. When it took over, the area that was LeTourneau Heights already contained four office buildings, a couple parking lots, and a lot of open space where houses once stood. Nine Tournalaids remained, but that number soon shrunk to five, then three, then just two. Bridges’s mother and her friend across the street, Mrs. Jones, occupied them until relocating to nursing homes. After that, the houses remained uninhabited for years, until the women’s children finally sold the properties to Komatsu in 2019.
Michelle Addington, dean of the architecture school at the University of Texas at Austin, says LeTourneau Heights echoes the larger history of company towns, in which homes built by an employer were rented out chiefly to its own workers. Such communities also often featured company-run stores, schools, churches, and other facilities. Some 2,500 company towns were built throughout the country, mostly between 1830 and 1930, after which New Deal worker protections discouraged their creation.
Over time, some company towns, such as Sugar Land, near Houston, successfully transitioned into full-fledged cities of their own. Many others didn’t. The town of Thurber, established by the founders of the Texas and Pacific Coal Company in 1886 about seventy miles west of Fort Worth, claimed 10,000 residents before the company moved its headquarters away, in 1933; by 1940, it was a ghost town. Similarly, the Big Lake Oil Company built Texon, seventy miles from Midland, in the late 1920s to house around 1,200 oil workers and their families; after a WWII–era decline in oil production, the town’s population severely dipped, and had dwindled to just 12 in the year 2000.
“[Company towns are] there to serve a single purpose,” Addington says. “When that purpose is over, the communities die.”
The complete disappearance of LeTourneau Heights didn’t sit right with Paul Jones, a retired corrections officer and Longview history buff. He remembered visiting a friend who lived in one of the Tournalaids back in the sixties, and in January 2020, he grew curious about what had happened to them. He stopped by the area, saw how badly the homes had fallen into disrepair, and learned from Komatsu employees that the company planned to demolish them.
This knowledge festered in his mind for a year before he spread the news in multiple posts in his Longview past and present Facebook group, which has about seven thousand members. He sparked the interest of Stephen Cameron, a real estate consultant in Los Angeles who grew up in Longview. Cameron couldn’t believe he’d never heard of the Tournalaids before and decided to call Henderson, whose research was about all that popped up when he searched on Google to find out more about the houses.
Henderson explained that he knew of more than one hundred Tournalaids still standing, but that nearly all had brick-clad exteriors or had been significantly modified in some other way. The two in Longview were the only ones he knew of that remained in their original state, with the unadorned concrete and flat roofs that LeTourneau preferred. (Texas Monthly has determined that three Tournalaids cast in Corpus Christi in 1947 survive in a similarly unadorned state.)
Cameron felt compelled to take action and sought the help of Preservation Texas, a nonprofit whose mission is protecting the state’s historic places. In January of this year, he released an open letter—signed by himself, Henderson, and Evan Thompson, executive director of Preservation Texas—asking Komatsu to halt any demolition plans and instead help “save these structures for future generations.”
Even so, the architecture of the Tournalaids in Longview is less interesting to experts such as Addington than is their history as an example of company-built housing. The homes’ significance also pales next to that of the Tournalayer machine that built them. Addington would prefer to see one of those preserved, and perhaps placed alongside a Tournalaid. “By itself, the house does not tell that story,” she says. “It ends up being a very quotidian house of its time and its ilk.”
It looks like the preservationists could get what they want. In response to the letter, Komatsu has said it has no immediate plans to raze the remaining homes. Cameron is in talks with the company and hopeful that the houses could be relocated this November, which would give him and his cohorts time to secure funding to move them.
Relocating a thirty-ton concrete hulk isn’t as daunting as it sounds, likely only requiring a jackhammer to free the structure from its floor and a crane or gantries to lift it onto a trailer. Cameron estimates it will cost $200,000 to move the two houses. In February, he and Henderson set up a nonprofit, the Machine-Built Architecture Conservancy, to accept donations. Preservation Texas has also requested that the Texas Historical Commission determine the homes’ eligibility to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which could open up funding possibilities.
The greater challenge might be finding a new spot for the Tournalaids. Longview’s downtown is already dotted with markers and memorials (including a couple of irksome Confederate monuments beside the courthouse). They proudly tell of the city’s history, which in the twentieth century included the 1930 discovery of the East Texas Oil Field. LeTourneau’s factory has played a major, decades-long role in Longview too, and its archives are housed at LeTourneau University, the Christian polytechnic school he established at the city’s former Army hospital in 1946.
Harold LeTourneau, a great-nephew of R.G. who lives in Longview, has been speaking to the university about moving the Tournalaids to its campus. He believes it could happen, but the school’s board has been slow to accept the idea. The university is in the midst of an expansion that involves demolishing the R. G. LeTourneau Memorial Center, a mushroom-shaped building that formerly housed the R. G. LeTourneau Museum (the contents of which have been relegated to a hallway in a nearby building). Which is not to say that the school no longer pays homage to its founder. A bronze statue of R.G. sits near the campus entrance next to three of his of earth-moving machines, as well as his and Evelyn’s graves.
Wherever they end up, preservationists would like to see the houses outfitted with period furniture and family photographs on the walls, as was done to one of LeTourneau’s steel prefabs in Illinois. A Tournalayer outside, as Addington suggested, would be great, too—if anyone could find one. Henderson’s best guess is that the machines were dismantled, with the parts used for other equipment. Hardy speculates that one could still be somewhere, rusting away, perhaps in the weeds in Liberia or Peru.
It’s a sad fate for the Tournalayer, one that the makers of today’s 3D printers would like to avoid. Fortunately for them, 3D printers have significant advantages over the Tournalayer. Addington explains that while both machines have pushed the frontiers of construction and manufacturing, the Tournalayer relied on conventional methods of casting concrete, whereas 3D printers skip traditional formwork, using algorithms to pipe out concrete for greater precision. The Tournalayer also necessitated site preparation, while 3D printers adapt designs to fit the environment.
Still, there are similarities—and not just that the Vulcan printer resembles a Tournalayer turned vertically. While 3D printers have been touted as potential saviors amid our present housing crisis, they also make monolithic houses primarily with concrete, which contains cement, a tricky material whose production accounts for as much as 8 percent of global carbon emissions. Concrete also has high thermal inertia and conductivity, which makes it less ideal for humid climates. “We keep inventing new technology to make fundamentally the same things, and not asking if it is time to reimagine what we are making,” Addington says.
Only time will tell whether the public will buy into 3D-printed homes, or if they’ll slowly disappear like the Tournalaids did—becoming relics for some future generation of preservationists to save.