The Real Deal New York

William Levitt: The king of suburbia

Levitt ushered in new way of American life, spawning thousands of copycat communities

April 30, 2008
By Matt Schneiderman

William Levitt’s legacy goes beyond any one
office or apartment building. The developer’s single-handed creation of Levittown, Long Island, right after World War II laid the groundwork for modern-day suburbia and spawned thousands of copycat communities nationwide.

It also got the term Levittown into textbooks, museum exhibits and documentary films as a synonym for a new way of American life.

But Levitt’s legacy is mixed. While his identical tract houses offered young military families an opportunity to own a home with a yard, critics viewed the community as void of character. And the dream of home ownership wasn’t available to everyone — Levitt opposed racial integration and initially created what was essentially a whites-only enclave.

The builder died broke in 1994 at age 86, after years of overspending and making unwise investments.

Born in Brooklyn in 1907, William Jaird Levitt joined the real estate business that his father Abraham founded in 1929. He served a tour of duty with the Navy during the war, but afterward joined his father and his brother Alfred in pioneering the post-war housing boom.

His company led the first wave of suburbanites out to Long Island with the promise of more space and an escape from the claustrophobic city, purchasing 1,000 acres of potato farmland near Island Trees in Nassau County.

The unprecedented $50 million construction project — which was to become the 17,000-home, 7.3-square-mile suburb bearing his name — began in July 1947. The first family to move into a Levittown home arrived three months later, in October.

Assembly-line approach

Levitt regularly compared his process of homebuilding to Henry Ford’s approach to building cars.

“What it amounted to was a reversal of the Detroit
assembly line,” he told the New York Times in 1989. “There, the car moved while the workers stayed at their stations. In the case of our houses, it was the workers who moved, doing the same jobs at different locations.”

The assembly-line process allowed for the speedy construction of houses — 150 per week, or one every 16 minutes of an eight-hour day.

The identical Cape Cod homes sat on seventh-of-an-acre lots. To speed construction, there were no basements (concrete slabs were simply poured directly onto the lot) and no garages.

Each home measured 750 square feet and had two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a bath, as well as an unfinished second floor so the homeowners could expand upward.

The production method kept costs low, and government assistance from the GI Bill, which offered housing loans and low-interest mortgages to veterans, made the houses affordable.

At first, the houses rented for $65 a month, with an option to buy for $6,990 and no down payment for veterans. By 1949, Levitt had already stopped renting
homes and was selling them for $7,990 (payments of just $58 a month) — a price that included a washer and refrigerator.

“My parents fit the classic profile of the original Levitt homeowners,” said Kate Murray, Hempstead town supervisor and Levittown homeowner. “My father was a returning World War II vet. My parents had started out by renting a Levitt home. One day, they heard that their house was to be sold, so my mother ran down to the construction-mobiles onsite and signed for the house with just her signature.”

Murray has fond memories of growing up where “within a third of a mile” of her childhood home, 50 kids in the 10- to 12-year-old range used to play outside.

Polly Dwyer, Levittown Historical Society president, bought her Levittown home with her husband in 1954. “I thank God for William Levitt,” she said. “He gave us a leg up. We couldn’t afford any other house on Long Island.”

Murray hears similar sentiments from other Levittowners. “There’s a great sense of appreciation for Levitt among the older folks,” said Murray. “They believe his vision gave them their first and only opportunity to buy a home and live out the American dream.”

But others had experiences with Levittown that left them scarred.

Eugene Burnett, who is black, has been quoted in a number of newspaper stories and in a documentary film called “Building the American Dream: Levittown, N.Y.,” talking about how he got turned away from Levittown in 1949 after being told that the developer wasn’t selling to African Americans. The town remains more than 90 percent white today.

A recent profile of the developer cited a 1954 Saturday Evening Post article that quoted Levitt: “If we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. That is their attitude, not ours. We did not create it, and we cannot cure it. As a company, our position is simply this: We can solve a housing problem or we can try to solve a racial problem, but we cannot combine the two.”

Starstruck

By market standards, Levitt was a huge success. The national demand for houses led to similar large-scale “Levittowns” in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as well as copycat developments across the U.S.

In 1950, Levitt achieved national fame with an appearance on the cover of Time Magazine as “Man of the Year” for his contributions to American life and suburban culture.

Yet while it is clear that Levitt was glad to be providing affordable housing to middle-income families, he also thrived on the recognition.

“There’s a thrill in meeting a demand with a product no one else can meet,”‘ he told the Times in 1952. “But I’m not here just to build and sell houses. To be perfectly frank, I’m looking for a little glory, too. It’s only human. I want to build a town to be proud of.”

Levitt’s supporters praised him as a leading philanthropist who gave back to the community. Murray noted that he left a large charitable imprint, donating land for a library, schools, synagogues and churches.

“He also put in nine public pools,” she said. “He didn’t simply use every square inch to build another home. He understood that a community is built on institutions, not just with houses.”

But many view Levittown as a case study in environmental irresponsibility that hastened urban sprawl.

James Howard Kunstler, a Levitt critic and author of “The Geography of Nowhere,” said at the 2005 conference called PetroCollapse in New York, “The infrastructure of suburbia can be described as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. It was deficient and problematic as a human habitat, even apart from the question of its sustainability.”

Partly in response to such criticisms, Levittown is now trying to reduce its carbon footprint. It recently declared that it would become the greenest American suburb by encouraging energy efficiency.

Cashing out

In 1967, Levitt sold his company to the International Telephone & Telegraph Corp. for $92 million in stock.

The sale funded a lavish lifestyle, including the purchase of a 237-foot yacht, La Belle Simone, which he named for his third wife; a 30-room mansion in the exclusive town of Mill Neck, Long Island; $3 million in jewelry; paintings by Renoir, Monet, Degas and Chagall; and a Rolls-Royce. (Levitt’s widow Simone and grandson David did not respond to interview requests for this story.)

According to published reports, Levitt also borrowed against his ITT stock to build subdivisions in places like Iran, Venezuela and Nigeria.

When ITT shares crashed, Levitt’s holdings lost about 90 percent of their original value. His foreign projects flopped, leaving him millions of dollars in debt.

In financial straits, Levitt allegedly siphoned millions from his own charitable foundation in 1981, according to documents filed by the New York State Attorney General’s office. Levitt was eventually required to refund $5 million.

Despite several attempts to rebound from these
financial setbacks, Levitt never recovered his fortune or influence. Estate- and yacht-less, Levitt died in 1994 of kidney disease.

The company his father built and that he sold, Levitt & Sons, began bankruptcy proceedings in November 2007. However, its parent company, Levitt Corporation, still bears the family’s name.

So, too, does Levittown, N.Y. “Levittown is still an
entry-level community,” said Murray. “It remains a great prospect for young couples who want a bit more green to call their own.”

For his part, Levitt said he wanted to be remembered as “a guy that I suppose gave value for low-cost housing.”

“Not somebody that gave value for half-million-dollar houses,” he said. “Anybody can do that.”

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