“Except fad a greater effect on home building in America than William J. Levitt.” Thus reads the tribute to William Levitt in the National Housing Hall of Fame. Often called the father of suburbia, Levitt was the driving force behind the Levitt and Sons, which built more than 140,000 houses that gave working-class Americans a chance to escape crowded cities and own a fully equipped home on a landscaped lot in a well-ordered community. The subject of glowing articles in every popular magazine and newspaper in the United States and a Time magazine cover story in 1950, Levitt changed the face of the American suburb and was an influence on almost every suburban community built in the second half of the 20th century.
In June 1947, concrete slabs began sprouting in fields on Long Island where only recently potatoes had grown. As soon as the concrete had dried, a crew of 27 specialized teams, one for each step of the construction process, arrived on the site. At the site, the teams found everything they needed waiting for them—framed walls, prefabricated and primed staircases and cabinets, wallboard, bricks, a small length of fence—picket or rustic split rail—and all the other materials for building the house, including the appliances. And the Levitts did not have to worry about running out of materials; they bought forests and built sawmills in the west and even manufactured their own nails. The first tenant moved into a Long Island Levitt home in October. By the end of 1947, the firm of Levitt and Sons—brothers William, the president and marketer, and Alfred, the architect, and father, Abraham, the landscaper—had built 2,000 homes, or 30 a day, one about every 15 minutes, a national record for the number of houses built in one year. By 1951, Levittown on Long Island had grown to more than 17,000 houses with a population of almost 70,000, an average of a family of four in each home.
Streamlined construction was the heart of Levitt and Sons’ phenomenal growth. In 1941, the Levitts had signed a federal contract to build 750 homes for naval officers in one year in Norfolk, Virginia, a project that would ordinarily take about four years. “We have to dream up new methods,” Bill announced. Alfred had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright and absorbed Wright’s ideas for practical, simplified houses. Applying the techniques of mass production to construction and adapting some of Wright’s ideas for efficient design, Alfred broke the construction process down to 27 steps and created a sort of reverse assembly line. Instead of the product moving along a line of workers as they would at a Ford plant, in Levittown the workers moved from house to house, repeating the same specialized job in each house. Hiring only nonunion workers enabled the Levitts to further simplify construction by circumventing many time-consuming union requirements—for example, paint was sprayed on the walls rather than hand-brushed by a craftsman, as required by the union.
The Levitts had recognized that as soon as the war ended, the demand for housing would be overwhelming. All nonmilitary construction had been suspended during the war, and now 16 million veterans would be returning home needing a place to live. With the Veterans Administration providing low-interest mortgage loans and the Federal Housing Authority guaranteeing bank loans to builders, the risk to builders was minimal. On returning from his service in the Seabees, Bill said, “The dice were loaded. We had known all along we could mass-produce houses if there was a market for them and credit for builders” (“Up from the Potato Fields” Time 1950).
And what a market there was. Alfred set about designing not just houses but a community—“a suburban community of several thousand homes, with its own shopping centers, churches, swimming pools, parks, and recreational facilities,” the Journal of the American Institute of Planners reported in its Spring 1951 issue. Bill wrote the ads—“The Rancher in Levittown / $59 a Month / No Down Payment for Veterans!” “Mrs. Kilroy Gets the Best” announced another ad, pointing out the Bendix washing machines that were standard in every home, as were venetian blinds, General Electric stoves and refrigerators, stainless steel Tracy sinks, and built-in Admiral televisions. On May 7, 1947, the day the Levitts announced they were building 2,000 homes for veterans on Long Island, the New York Herald Tribune reported that half the homes were rented in two days, and before the week was up, there were 4,495 applications complete with $60 down payments.
Before any houses went up, however, there was a problem that had to be solved. Levitt houses were to be erected on concrete slabs with the pipes for heating embedded in them, but the town of Hempstead building code required that houses have basements. Again Bill Levitt put his copywriting skills to work. He wrote an ad calling on his future tenants to attend a public hearing before the Hempstead Town Board to press their demands for the Levitt houses. When the crowd overflowed the town hall, the board overturned the rule, and construction began. To crown his victory, Bill Levitt, never known for his modesty, decided to rename the town of Island Trees, on whose fields he was building, and so, over the strong objections of both Alfred and Abe, the name Levittown was born.
The new community had winding streets and was composed of neighborhood clusters with cul-de-sacs where children could play safely. Set on plots of one-seventh of an acre, the houses were small and had no garage, just 750 square feet with a living room, kitchen, bath, and two bedrooms on the main floor; a stairway led to an unfinished attic. There was little need for furniture. The bedroom featured a wall of closets for storage and dressing; lights turned on when the door was opened. A bookcase was built into the side of the stairwell, and there was a hutch in the kitchen. The house itself was a traditional Cape Cod, complete with woodburning fireplace, but there were small variations in design and exterior color that prevented a total cookie-cutter look. Alfred’s focus on even the smallest details extended to planning the houses with expansion in mind, from the unfinished second story to placement on the lot, which varied from house to house and allowed for easy additions. In 1949, a somewhat larger contemporary ranch house with a carport was introduced.
Although the lots were bare and muddy when the first tenants moved in, Abe Levitt, a lifelong student and lover of horticulture, envisioned a nicely manicured and tree-shaded community. Scrawny shrubs and two saplings in each front yard were as much a part of the Levittown house as the washing machines. The contract for the rental of a Levittown house included a clause that lawns were to be mowed weekly, and if the tenant did not do it, the Levitts arranged for the cutting and charged the tenant. Only umbrella-style rotary clotheslines were allowed, and they were not to be used on Sunday. There were to be no fences except the decorative little fence provided with the house, and tenants could not change the exterior color of their houses.
Initially the Levitts rented the houses, but soon they began offering them for sale at $7,990 for a new ranch house. Veterans, guaranteed low-interest mortgages by the government, camped out for a chance to buy. “In a scene reminiscent of the storming of the gates of Versailles and the Yukon gold rush, almost a thousand veterans, wives, and full retinues of kids besieged Levitt and Sons,” Long Island Newsday reported on May 12, 1949. Sales were as mechanized as the building; Levitt reported selling 650 houses in five hours.
With the success of Levittown on Long Island, the Levitts began planning their next major community. They selected an area north of Philadelphia in Bucks County, drawn by the construction of a huge U.S. Steel mill and its influx of workers. Unlike the first Levittown, which was planned as it developed, the Bucks County Levittown had a master plan. “We bought 5,000 acres and we planned every foot of it,” Bill Levitt told House and Home in December 1951. Sales were phenomenal. With houses starting at $9,990, 3,500 homes were sold in the first 10 weeks. By this time, the Levitts had boosted their weekly output of houses to 200. In a little over six years, more than 17,000 homes were built with a population of about 70,000.
Levittown II was made up of mile-square blocks of 41 neighborhoods of 300 to 500 houses each. Levitt selected the neighborhood names alphabetically, excluding X and Z—Dogwood Hollow, Goldenridge, Lakeside, conveying a bucolic aura. Within each neighborhood, the streets, called “lanes” in Levittown East and “roads” in Levittown West, all began with the same letter of the alphabet—for example, “Sweetbriar Lane would be in the Stonybrook section (in Levittown East) while Scarlet Oak Road would be in the Snowball Gate section (in Levittown West)” (Levittowners.com). The community had two large shopping centers, advertised as within walking distance of each neighborhood; parks; a community center; Little League baseball fields; and five Olympic-sized swimming pools. Land was set aside for churches and schools. The streets were carefully laid out so that “no child will have to walk more than one half mile to school or cross any major road” (Levittowners.com). As in Levittown I, there were rules. All tenants received a 14-page booklet outlining how to care for their home and how to maintain the landscaping.
What many Levittowners saw as the perfect community offered young families a chance that had been, until now, almost impossible to achieve—a first home that was affordable and totally up to date in a community of contemporaries. Occupationally Levittown may have been diverse, but few homeowners were older than 35, and almost all had young children. The uniform pricing of the houses meant the income level throughout Levittown was similar, so there were few economic differences in the population. Because of the common recreational and community facilities, the prohibition against fences, and the fact that all the families were new to the community, friendships developed quickly, fulfilling, in the words of the New York Times in 1952, the hope that “tender shoots of friendship, kindness, and goodwill can push through the chaos and blight of our machine society” (quoted in Kushner). Publications and Web sites attest to the continuing pride and loyalty of many Levittowners, who decades after their arrival fondly recall what it meant to live and grow up in one of the Levitt communities.
The name Levittown suggests that the communities were towns, but none of the Levittowns was an incorporated municipality. They all remained part of the nearby and surrounding towns and townships. The Levitts built roads but left the towns to maintain them. They put aside land for schools, but the towns footed the bills for building and supporting them. In the same way, municipal services—police and fire departments, water supply—were provided by the towns; the Levittowners had to arrange for their own trash collection. Levittowns also burdened the surrounding towns with their need for parking; the Levitts had not anticipated increased car ownership, nor was public transportation taken into consideration.
Diverse as were the backgrounds and occupations of the homeowners, diversity did not extend to racial minorities. Among the capitalized rules in the agreement Levittown I that buyers had to sign was the clause “THE TENANT AGREES NOT TO PERMIT THE PREMISES TO BE USED OR OTHERWISE OCCUPIED BY ANY PERSON OTHER THAN MEMBERS OF THE CAUCASIAN RACE.” Almost from the inception of the Federal Housing Authority in 1934, this had been official FHA policy, encapsulating and promoting the belief that homogeneity ensured stable neighborhoods. But World War II, in which black troops had fought for their country, initiated a change in attitudes. In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled such clauses “unenforceable as law and contrary to public policy.” Levitt dropped the clause but not the policy. “The policy that has prevailed in the past is exactly the same policy that prevails today,” Levitt told Newsday in June 1949 (quoted in Kushner). Levitt always held that if he sold to blacks, he would not be able to sell to whites. In fact, in the upscale Levitt and Sons Long Island communities built during the 1930s, Levitt, a Jew, had restricted Jewish ownership.
The NAACP and other civil rights organizations pointed out that the government, through the FHA and federal assistance to veterans, was financing the Levitt projects, but Levitt maintained that, despite this assistance, his projects were private, neither sponsored nor built by the government. Levitt also capitalized on the connection some Americans assumed between Communists and attempts to promote racial integration. Levitt had bowed to public pressure and demonstrations on Long Island and allowed a white family that hosted an interracial playgroup to remain in Levittown, and three black families had managed to buy houses and live there without incident. This was not the case in Bucks County, however. The NAACP had been rebuffed in Philadelphia district court, which stated that the law did not require the FHA and Veterans Administration to prevent discrimination. But in 1957, Bucks County was in a recession, and houses were not selling. Desperate to sell a house that had been on the market for two years, a Levittowner sold to a black couple, setting off racial incidents reminiscent of the South, with smashed windows, cross burnings, Ku Klux Klan threats, and court cases that ultimately found in favor of the black family. Although Levitt fought on and announced that his next community, in Willingboro, New Jersey, would also be white only, the New Jersey courts ruled that state barred discrimination in “all housing financed in whole or in part by a loan... guaranteed by the Federal government on any agency thereof.” Levitt appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court’s decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Levitt’s appeal. However, Levitt continued to enforce discriminatory practices in a Maryland project, reversing his policy only after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in whose honor he declared in full-page ads in major cities across the country, his company was “eliminating segregation in any place it builds,” as quoted by author David Kushner.
William Jaird Levitt was born on February 11, 1907, in Brooklyn, New York, the first son of Abraham and Pauline Levitt; a second son, Alfred Stuart, was born four years later. Abe Levitt was the son of a poor immigrant rabbi. He dropped out of school at 10 to earn money but read and studied voraciously. He also roamed the city parks, glorying in their beauty. Self-taught, he passed the state regents and went to NYU Law School. After graduating in two years, he started a firm that specialized in real estate law. Like him, both his sons were restless and found school a waste of time. “I got itchy, I wanted to make a lot of money. I wanted a big car and a lot of clothes,” Bill explained (quoted in Time, “Up from the Potato Fields”). In 1929, Bill married Rhoda Kirshner, whom he had known since his teens. They had two sons, William Jr. and James.
Abe Levitt had always dabbled in real estate and owned property on Long Island within commuting distance of New York City. Even though the housing market was depressed, Abe created a firm that drew on the talents of his sons—Bill, the salesman and marketer, and Alfred, who had studied art and architecture—and launched the company’s foray into suburbia. In 1929, Alfred designed a Tudor-style house, and Bill sold it for $14,500. Thus began Levitt and Sons’ suburban career as they sold upscale homes—Georgian, English, Norman-French—all equipped with topline appliances and landscaped by Abe. Before the Levitt sons were 30, they were among the most successful builders in the United States, having constructed and sold 2,000 homes in Long Island’s wealthiest communities during the Depression.
World War II brought residential housing to a halt, and Bill spent 1944 and 1945 in the Seabees in Hawaii as a procurement officer. Anticipating the housing shortage that would follow the war, Bill urged Abe and Alfred to put all of their energy into getting the financing to build homes for the returning veterans. They did just that, and soon Levitt and Sons began creating the suburban developments that bear their name.
In time, Alfred, whose unassuming style was the opposite of Bill’s flamboyant life, grew tired of being in Bill’s shadow and seeing his own projects shelved, and in 1954 he sold out to Bill. Abe was also stepping back from the company in anticipation of retirement, leaving Bill to run the company alone. The civil rights cases had taken their toll on Bill, and in 1968 he sold the company to International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation for $92 million. By this time he had divorced his wife and married his longtime mistress, Alice Kenny; in 1969 he divorced her and married Simone Korchin, a young French art dealer. They lived a lavish life, complete with a mansion, a yacht, and original Impressionist paintings. But the success that marked Levitt’s early years reversed, with several real estate projects that failed, costing him his considerable fortune. In 1981, he was accused of using money from his family’s charitable foundation and had to repay more than $5 million. Ultimately he was forced to sell his furnishings, his boat, and his house, and his electricity and phone were disconnected. In the summer of 1992, Bill Levitt was hospitalized with a ruptured intestine and spent the rest of life in North Shore University Hospital, which offered him a free room because in his better days he had donated so much money to it. He died there on January 28, 1994.
The legacy of Levitt and Sons, dominated by William Levitt’s forceful personality, is difficult to capture in a handy phrase. Lauded by the popular press in the 1950s, Levitt and the Levittown communities were caught up in the adverse reaction to suburbia in books like Sloan Wilson’s Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and John Keats’ Crack in the Picture Window. Academic and cultural critics also deplored Levittown. Social observer Lewis Mumford called Levittown “a low-grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible”; folksinger Pete Seeger memorialized Levittown in his rendition of Malvina Reynolds’s poem “Little Boxes”—“Little boxes on the hillside, / Little boxes made of ticky tacky.” Herbert Gans, a Columbia University sociologist, offered a more evenhanded view. Gans lived in a Levitt development for two years in order to study it and concluded that, whatever its drawbacks, Levittown provided working-class and middle-class homeowners a family-centered life in a friendly and comfortable community. For many, Levittown was an escape from urban crowding, a realization of what has been apotheosized as the American Dream. Far from being a dreary uniform suburban slum, the prophecy of some contemporary critics, today Levittown on Log Island and in Bucks County are communities of individual homes, renovated and decorated by their owners to suit their taste and shaded by the trees Abe planted decades ago. William Levitt was eager to get rich, and he put his unbounding salesmanship and skill into that effort, but he also brought to his industry true ingenuity and innovation and in so doing won a permanent place in American social and business history. As he himself put it, “Sure, there’s a thrill in meeting a demand with a product no one else can meet. But I’m not here just to build and sell houses. To be perfectly frank, I’m looking for a little glory, too. I want to build a town to be proud of” (quoted in his obituary, New York Times, 1994).
—Maron L. Waxman
Hales, Peter Bacon. “Building Levittown: A Rudimentary Primer.” Art History Department, University of Illinois at Chicago.
Hayden, Dolores. Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.
Kushner, David. Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb. New York: Walker & Company, 2009.
Lacayo, Richard. “Suburban Legend: William Levitt.” Time, December 7, 1998. Time Magazine. “Time 100: The Most Important People of the 20th Century.”
“Levittown: Building the Suburban Dream.” An exhibit at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, 2003 [online].
“Levittown, Pennsylvania.” Levittowners.com on the Web.
Matrres, Lynne. “A Brief History of Levittown, New York.” Extracted from Levittown Historical Society, “History of Levittown, New York.” 1997. http://www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org/history.htm .
Pace, Eric. “Up from the Potato Fields.” Time, July 3, 1950. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,812779,00.html .
“William J. Levitt, 86, Pioneer of Suburbs, Dies.” New York Times, January 29, 1994. http://www.nytimes.com/1994/01/29/obituaries/william-j-levitt-86-pioneer-of-suburbs-dies.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm.