Levittown: The birth of the ‘burbs

Suburban living comes in many forms. When my dad returned home from serving in WWII there was no housing available. Today, at 87 years old, he reminisces that he would have been grateful for a Quonset hut or an apartment but neither could be found, so for several years he and mom lived with the in-laws.

Eventually Dad purchased a “modern” prefabricated home just outside the city. He gave the builder $50, and a handshake and obtained a VA mortgage. Having read about the Levitt Long Island development he hoped the company would also build in our area. The home he got was close to the ’50s style Utopia, a ranch, built on a slab, similar to Levitt homes, but our suburb was only one street long. The Levitt family did ’burbs on a much grander scale

Abraham, the founder of Levitt & Sons began the company during the Great Depression. He needed to finish a building project to protect an investment. Calling his sons William and Alfred home from college, the three men quickly learned the construction trade. By the time the complex was completed World War II was imminent.

At the end of the war there were 16 million men and women who had been demobilized from the military and needed housing. When William Levitt returned from active duty he realized his family business could capitalize on this great need. By 1947 the Levitts had purchased Island Trees, 1,000 acres of potato farms on Long Island and proceeded to mass produce more than 17,000 homes. Each house contained 750 square feet – no garage and no basement – and many could be purchased for a low as $8,000.

Alfred became responsible for production and design, Abraham planned the landscaping with precisely two trees per home planted in exactly the same location on each plot. He was so precise about the plantings and grass he made frequent tours through the neighborhoods making sure proper care was being taken of the greenery, and contacted those with infractions. William became the Levitt everyone knew, handling financing and national promotional campaigns.

Although Alfred Levitt kept in the background, he did have interesting connections. According to David Marable, historian and collector, Alfred often spoke with his friend Frank Lloyd Wright comparing thoughts on modern construction.

Many folks have memories of Levittown and its blinding blandness. One lady remembers visiting friends in Levittown when she was a teenager. Her lasting impression was of a huge expanse of sameness unbroken by any noticeable trees. Another person, now in her 80s, recalled a friend who lived in Levittown who had psychological problems because all the streets and houses looked alike. The friend often got disoriented, frightened and lost while trying to find her own home.

New mass production methods in supplying building needs and new tactics for dealing with government regulations made it possible for Levitt & Sons to construct nearly 200 homes each week. The Levitts purchased forests in Oregon and opened a sawmill and a nail factory. Levitt homes were constructed with redwood siding from their own forests. The Long Island Levittown was so successful a Levittown in Pennsylvania was soon scheduled.

Levittown, Penn., a suburb of Philadelphia, became the largest planned community in America constructed by a single builder. More than 17,300 homes, churches, schools parks, pools and a shopping center made this Levittown a model for future building. It was officially completed in 1958. Advertisements showed a popular color for kitchens; brilliant turquoise and neon flamingo pink were often used.

Another 1958 advertisement claimed that $100 a month would cover all taxes, insurance and amortization for a “Country Clubber” Levittown house. Life in this suburb was the answer to the American dream, but it came with caveats. Owners were not allowed to change the color of the siding or put fences in front of the house, and absolutely no offending the line of sight with laundry hung outside. You were not allowed to let your mini plot of grass get too tall or you would be penalized; the Levitt gardners would be sent to do the work for which you would be billed. Much more offensive these days, no Jews and no blacks were allowed to purchase homes. Such regulations reflected the pre-civil rights era, and though the Levitt family would have sold to anyone with the cash, social mores could not be broken.

Over time things did change. Stephen Rees, a reference librarian at the Levittown Pennsylvania Regional Library, says that nearly all the houses have been renovated in some respect, and now all people are welcome in the neighborhood. “Additional rooms have been added or car ports turned into garages, so very few are in original condition. The old shopping center has been torn down, but on the whole the area is still very well kept up. I get calls from all over the world wanting information about Levittown. Most people are just nostalgic for life in the 1950s, but some write about it as though the Levittowns are some sort of sociology experiment,” he states.

“Here at the library we are trying to preserve as much of the history as possible, including the personal stories. We are losing more of these each day as the first residents pass on.

“One of the common tales of life in Levittown when it was originally built tells of difficulties with a suburb surrounded by farmland. They meshed uncomfortably at times as the new residents would occasionally find cow plop, or a whole cow in their yard, or a horse peeking in the windows,” Rees relates. “The library also would like to find more photos, and data on the churches and schools in Levittown. Any kind of printed material, advertisements, blueprints, pictures, year books maps and scrapbooks relating to all aspects of life in Levittown is welcome in our collection.”

The library plans to build up their history room materials and will provide a printed list of questions for anyone who will share their memories of Levittown for inclusion in an oral history project.

David Marable is proprietor of one of the largest collections of Levittown, Penn., memorabilia. He lives in a house originally purchased by his parents and has added a whole room to serve as an unofficial museum.

“Dad returned home from the Navy and used a GI mortgage to buy this house and we moved in when I was four years old, in 1952. I have been blessed to have grown up in this community, and as I look back to all the fun growing up here with the baseball fields, swimming pools, Town Theatre, parades, area dances. It’s been a wonderful experience,” Marable said.

That is probably part of the reason he has become the unofficial “historian” and keeper of massive collections of Levittown history, which includes several whole kitchen units. He has more than 17,000 items relating to his hometown. “It took me a long time to photograph and catalog the collection,” he says. Things just keep falling into his lap and it was hard to turn anything down, even though the items now fill two large storage units plus his in-house museum.

“I have conducted 40 programs about Levittown so far, for school groups, college students and senior citizen organizations. I hope to have a real museum some day and with the help of a lot of good people on the board of the Levittown, Inc., I believe it is possible. Two members of the Levitt family are on the board of advisors and Mrs. Simone Levitt, William Levitt’s widow, gave me many 35 millimeter films of Levittown in the 1950s. I have had all this put on CDs to preserve it for the future.

“This is such a unique area and the real hub of Levitt & Sons. This community was built on 5,500 acres and housed over 70,000 residents in 17,300 single family units. There were six styles of homes. Twelve houses were built over a stream and the county eventually had to tear them down as the slab foundations were crumbling. I was able to get into the houses before they were demolished and retrieve bricks from fireplaces and a section of wall to show the original paint. While investigating the condemned homes I found metal seals built into the fireplaces with the name of the supplier, and another kind of medallion in the kitchens with WL on one side and CB on the other; WL for William Lane and CB for Construction Battalion,” related Marable.

The Levittown Shopping Center has also succumbed to the ravages of time and had to be torn down. There were 60 stores in the complex and Marable was able to get permission to go into each one before they were destroyed to collect items of history.

Some of the best things David Marable has uncovered are the stories. “I was very fortunate to be able to interview William Levitt’s personal pilot, Raymond Profitt. He was a personal friend of the family as well as their pilot. One of his favorite remembrances occurred when the Levitts wanted to build a Levittown in Cuba and were actually in Cuba on the day Castro took over the government. Profitt had to fly the Levitt group out of the country very quickly,” Marable related.

Marable has traveled to many of the Levitt locations including the redwood forests where the Levitt lumber yard was located. On that particular trip he was given a red wood seedling that is now planted in his front yard. “It’s all about connections,” he says. The tree is a tangible reminder of the origins of the Levitt empire and the forests used in its construction.”

William Levitt employed many catch phrases in promotion of Levittown, such as “Everyone lives on the same side of the tracks,” and “There is no upper class distinction here.” Keeping in mind it was the era of the cold war he also said “No man who owns his own home can be a communist.”

It was a land of no slums, it was kid friendly and a pediatrician’s delight. Curvilinear roadways with limited vehicle access and no four-way intersections made the streets safer for autos and children.

Levittowns have also provided inspiration for writers and musicians, and many well-known people have lived in what was often referred to as the “land of bland.” Billy Joel’s song “Leningrad” mentions the “… children hid in Levittown,” referring to the McCarthy era when children hid under their desks during practice air raids.

Levittown in Long Island and Levittown in  Pennsylvania were just the beginnings of the unique Levitt communities built in many locations. Abraham Levitt’s dream of creating perfectly planned and complete garden communities erected from the ground up, did indeed come true.

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