The Buy Of The Century

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Years later, after the fall of his financial empire, William Levitt remembered with some satisfaction the story of a boy in Levittown, Long Island, who finished his prayers with “and God bless Mommy and Daddy and Mr. Levitt.” Levitt may well have belonged in this trinity. When he sold his company in 1968, more Americans lived in suburbs than in cities, making this the first suburban nation in history, and his family was largely responsible for that.

Jim and Virginia Tolley met William Levitt in 1949 after waiting in line with three thousand other ex-GIs and their families to buy houses. Bill Levitt pointed to a plot on a map spread out on a long table and advised the Tolleys to buy the house he would build on that spot. Thanks to a large picture window with an eastern exposure, the Tolley’s home, Levitt promised, would have sunshine in the coldest months of winter, and its large overhanging eaves would keep them cool in the summer. The Tolleys, who lived in a three-room apartment in Jackson Heights, bought the unbuilt house.

Their story was shared by the more than 3.5 million Americans who had lacked new housing in 1946, housing that had not been built during the Depression and the war. People kept marrying and having babies, but for almost two decades nobody was building new homes.

In providing affordable housing for thousands of Americans after the war, the Levitts were following a basic American success formula; they were at the right place at the right time. Abraham, the patriarch of the family, had been a real estate lawyer in Brooklyn. His two sons, William and Alfred, briefly attended New York University before they began to buy land and design and build houses on a small scale. Alfred was the architect, learning his trade by trial and error, while William was the salesman and became the more public figure. The Second World War transformed their business. Encouraged by wartime contracts for large-scale housing projects, they followed the same mass-production principles that earlier in the century had been developed to build automobiles and that in wartime made ships and airplanes, tanks and guns.

Levittown, Long Island, thirty miles east of New York City, was the first of their postwar projects. Levittown was not the earliest planned community in the country, but it was certainly the biggest, and it is still considered the largest housing project ever assembled by a single builder. Between 1947 and 1951 the Levitts built more than seventeen thousand houses, along with seven village greens and shopping centers, fourteen playgrounds, nine swimming pools, two bowling alleys, and a town hall, on land that had once been potato farms. In addition, the company sold land for schools at cost and donated sites for churches and fire stations.

Following the course of other American industries, the Levitts expanded both horizontally and vertically. They purchased timberland in California and a lumber mill, they built a nail factory, they established their own construction supply company to avoid middlemen, and they acquired a fleet of cement trucks and grading equipment. Instead of the product moving along a production line, however, the Levitt house stood stationary while men, material, and equipment moved around it. At its peak of efficiency the Levitt organization could complete a house every fifteen minutes. Although these were not prefabricated houses, all the materials, including the preassembled plumbing systems and precut lumber, were delivered to the site ready for construction. Twenty-seven steps were required to build a Levittown house, and each work crew had its specialized task. One man did nothing but move from house to house bolting washing machines to the floor. William Levitt liked to say his business was the General Motors of the housing industry. Indeed, the automobile seems to have inspired many of Levitt’s practices. He even produced new house models each year, and a few Levittown families would actually buy updated versions, just as they bought Detroit’s latest products.

The first style, a four-and-a-half room bungalow with steeply pitched roof, offered five slight variations in the placement of doors and windows. The result, according to a 1947 Architectural Forum , was “completely conventional, highly standardized and aptly described in the public’s favorite adjective, ‘cute.’” A couple of years later the same publication moderated its tone of easy scorn to pronounce the style “a much better-than-average version of that darling of the depression decade—builder’s Cape Cod.”