July/august 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 4
The generation that fought World War II also won a housing revolution that promised and delivered a home for $7,990
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.”
Levittown houses were not what the popular 1960s song called “little boxes made of ticky-tacky.” They were exceptionally well built, the product of some of the most innovative methods and materials in the industry. Taking a page from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses, Levittown homes stood on concrete slab foundations (they had no basements), in which copper coils provided radiant heating. The Tolleys were among the first customers for the 1949 ranch-style houses that replaced the earlier Cape Cod design. The ranches featured Thermopane glass picture windows, fireplaces opening into two rooms, and carports instead of garages. In addition, they had built-in closets and bookcases and swinging shelf units that acted as walls to open up or close the space between kitchen, living room, and entry passage. At twenty-five by thirty-two feet the new houses were two feet longer than the earlier models, and they offered as standard features built-in appliances that were only just coming into general use; many houses contained Bendix washing machines and Admiral television sets. The fixed price of $7,990 allowed the Levitts to advertise “the housing buy of the century.” It was probably true. Levitt and his sons seemed to be practically giving homes away. Thousands of families bought into new Levittowns in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, and even Paris and Puerto Rico. The techniques that the Levitts initiated have been copied by home builders throughout the country ever since.
Despite its immediate success, from the earliest days Levittown also stood as a metaphor for all the possible failings of postwar America. The architectural critic Lewis Mumford is said to have declared the tract an “instant slum” when he first saw it, and he certainly was aiming at Levittown when he condemned the postwar American suburb for its “multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless pre-fabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to the same common mold.” Some of the early rules, requiring owners to mow their lawns every week, forbidding fences, or banning the hanging out of laundry on weekends, did indeed speak of the kind of regimentation Mumford snobbishly abhorred.
Today’s visitor to the original Long Island Levittown might be surprised by many of those early criticisms. Now almost fifty years old, most of the houses have been so extensively remodeled that it is often difficult to distinguish the basic Cape Cod or ranch inside its Tudor half-timbering or postmodern, classical eclecticism. Greenery and shade trees have enveloped the bare landscape of the 1950s and Japanese sand gardens, Renaissance topiary, and electrically generated brooks and waterfalls decorate many of Levittown’s standard sixty-by-one-hundred-foot plots. The place now seems not the model of mass conformity but a monument to American individualism.
Probably Levittown never was the drab and monotonous place its critics imagined. For many early residents it allowed cultural diversity to flourish. Pre-war inner-city neighborhoods often had ethnic divisions unknown in Levittown. Louis and Marylin Cuviello, who bought a onebathroom house in 1949 and reared eleven children there, found themselves moving in a wider world than the one they had known in the city. She was a German-American married to an Italian-American, and in their Levittown neighborhood most of the householders were Jewish. During their first years there the Cuviellos took classes in Judaism at the local synagogue, and they often celebrated both Passover and Christmas with their neighbors.
But this American idyll was not for everyone. In 1949, after Gene Burnett, like his fellow veteran Jim Tolley, saw advertisements for Levittown in several New York papers, he drove to Long Island with his fiancée. The Levittown salesman he met refused to give him an application form. “It’s not me,” the agent said. “The builders have not at this time decided to sell to Negroes.” This pattern of racial exclusion was set in 1947, when rental contracts prohibited “the premises to be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” In 1992 Gene Burnett, now a retired sergeant in the Suffolk County, Long Island, Police Department, told a reporter, “I’ll never forget the ride back to East Harlem.”
There were other such episodes. Bill Cotter, a black auto mechanic, and his family sublet a house in Levittown in 1953. When his sublet expired, he was informed that he would not be allowed either to rent or to own a house in Levittown. Despite the protests of friendly neighbors, who launched a petition drive in their behalf, Cotter, his wife, and their five children were forced to vacate. These racial policies persisted. As late as the 1980s real estate agents in the area assured white home buyers that they did not sell to blacks, and in 1990 the census revealed that .03 percent of Levittown’s population—127 out of more than 400,000—was African-American.
Levittown has been both celebrated and denounced as the fruit of American laissez-faire capitalism. In fact, it may more accurately be described as the successful result of an alliance between government and private enterprise. Levittown and the rise of American suburbia in general could not have happened without attractive loan packages for home buyers guaranteed by the FHA and the VA. Tax breaks, such as the deductibility of mortgages, encouraged suburbanites, who were also helped by a burst of federally funded highway construction. For almost half a century after World War II, the government has played a major role in helping consumers obtain the products of industry—washing machines, television sets, cars, and, especially, houses. For most of us it’s been a great ride.
For Bill Levitt it’s been a roller coaster. Things started to go sour for him after the sale of his company to ITT in 1968. He received about fifty million dollars in ITT stock and launched a spending spree that did not stop until the courts finally stepped in. Levitt’s agreement with ITT prohibited him from building projects in the United States for ten years, so he turned elsewhere: housing in Nigeria and Venezuela, oil drilling in Israel, and housing and irrigation projects in Iran—just before the fall of the shah. He invested in rotary engines, recording companies, and pharmacies. Most of the projects failed. Meanwhile, the ITT stock that was his major capital asset plummeted from $104 to $12 a share in the first four years.
Levitt re-entered the housing market in the United States in 1978 projects in Orlando and Tampa, Florida. Construction and sales moved quickly at first but soon slowed as contractors began to sue for payment. More than two thousand people, some of them original Levittowners who were now ready to retire, paid deposits for houses in the Florida Levittowns that were never built. Levitt, it was later discovered, had been using the funds from his Florida projects to support his expensive habits. Along the way he had removed more than ten million dollars from a charitable foundation that his family had established. These legal and financial problems have made Bill Levitt a virtual hermit, and today he lives in seclusion not far from the Long Island Levittown that bears his name.
Levittown residents have mixed feelings about their unique heritage. Periodically some of them have attempted to redraw the boundaries of the towns so they could have more elegant addresses. More recently, proud members of the Levittown Historical Society have worked to encourage a new appreciation for their community. They are pushing to establish historic landmark districts while they try to preserve the few houses that have remained relatively unchanged over the years. They are also casting a wide net among their neighbors and former neighbors to gather artifacts and memorabilia for a museum. Recently the Smithsonian Institution announced that it was looking for an original Levittown house to add to its American domestic-life collection. Some African-American groups continue to question the virtue of memorializing a policy of exclusion, but the history-minded residents are pressing ahead, and Eddie Bortell, the Historical Society’s vice president, is optimistic. If the work of the historical society has helped bring attention to some of these painful questions, he says, then that in itself is a reward for its efforts.