Perfectly Planned Community
Most House for the Most Money
the American Dream
LEVITT & SONS AND THE POST WWII
1950 and 1960, 20 million people were drawn to mass
housing developments on the outskirts of America's cities.
In terms of sheer numbers, the move to the suburbs outstripped
the fabled Westward migration of the 1800s many times
[Reprinted from Electrical Merchandising,
The new suburbs combined country comforts with city
conveniences. With the help of modern production and
financing methods, builders like Levitt and Sons made
the American dream of homeownership affordable to millions.
or advertisement addressing needs of returning
carriage. [Chicago Tribune, 1947]
Returning war veterans sparked an unprecedented demand
for housing after World War II. Cheaper materials and
government-backed mortgages enabled home builders to
meet that demand.
"The Henry Ford of Housing"
"Any fool can build homes—what
counts is how many you can sell for how little."
William J. Levitt
in 1929 by attorney Abraham Levitt, Levitt and Sons
quickly became one of the nation’s largest home
|Abraham, William and
Alfred Levitt pose for a Fortune Magazine feature
story in 1952. William served as president and spokesman;
brother Alfred served as architect.
During the 1930s, the Levitts custom built a few hundred
houses a year, mostly on Long Island. In 1941 the firm
won a government contract to build 2200 defense housing
units in Norfolk, Virginia. It was the Levitts first—but
certainly not last—venture in mass housing.
and after aerials showing Island Trees, New York, site
of the first Levittown development.
Architect’s rendering of two
versions of the 1947 Cape Cod built in Island Trees
(later Levittown), New York.
The first Levittown sprang to life in 1947 on 1200
acres of potato fields on Long Island. To speed production
and cut costs, Levitt offered just two basic house types.
The scale of the project attracted national attention
and made Levitt and Sons a household name. Veterans
and their families applied by the thousands to rent
and later buy one of Levitt’s mass-produced homes.
In 1950, Time Magazine estimated that Levitt
and Sons built one out of every 8 houses in United States.
Levitt remained the nation’s largest home builder
through most of the 1950s.
In 1998, Time again recognized Levitt’s
significance, calling his developments "as much an achievement
of [their] cultural moment as Venice or Jerusalem."
Critics, though, linked Levittown with the beginnings
of suburban sprawl.
Unlike other builders who merely constructed houses,
Levitt built entire communities. Pennsylvania’s
Levittown was one of three "package" suburbs developed
between 1947 and 1959. The third Levittown, located
just across the Delaware River in New Jersey, changed
its name back to Willingboro in 1963.
Levitt turns to Pennsylvania
||Cover of special "Delaware
Valley" edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
[Collections of The State Museum]
The opening of U.S. Steel’s Fairless Works in
1952 (mural photo) drew workers from around the state.
Steelworkers John Kabaci and Andrew Gargus both moved
to Levittown from Western Pennsylvania. As noted on
his lunch box, Kabaci worked in the plant’s paint
department. Jim Sheridan (hardhat) came to Levittown
from a small mining town near Scranton.
In 1951, rural lower Bucks County was poised for growth.
Lower Bucks was close to population centers (Philadelphia
and Trenton), improved highways (including the Pennsylvania
Turnpike) and, best of all, jobs. U.S. Steel broke ground
for its new Fairless Works Division along the western
bank of the Delaware River in early 1951. At the time,
the Fairless Works was the second largest integrated
plant on the East Coast, and the 12th largest steel
mill in the country.
While Levittown, L.I. catered to veterans and Manhattan
commuters, Levittown, Pa. targeted blue-collar workers
in the Delaware Valley. Promoters touted the region,
just northeast of Philadelphia, as America’s Ruhr Valley.
is a one-class community on a great scale, too
congested for effective variety and too spread
out for social relationships…Mechanically, it
is admirably done. Socially, the design is backward."
Lewis Mumford, 1952
"What would you call the places
our homeowners left to move out here? We give
them something better and something they can pay
"The typical postwar development operator
was a man who figured how many houses he could possibly
cram onto a piece of land and have the local zoning
board hold still for it…."
John Keats, The Crack in the Picture Window,
Writers, artists and social critics derided mass housing
developments as dull and shoddily built. While defending
the integrity of his work, Levitt recognized some of
Levittown’s shortcomings, particularly its lack
of housing variety, and vowed to make improvements with
his next project.