Instant House

A blog tribute to the manufactured, mass-produced, modular and kit homes that grace the American landscape.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Levittown, PA

Levittown, PA
Ah, Levittown.  The very name conjures up a picture of white, middle-class, suburban, cookie-cutter American homes in an idyllic Leave-It-To-Beaver style with manicured lawns, good-looking people, and no fences.  No fences at all.  If that’s your image, you’re partially correct.  In the 1950s, Bill Levitt built many of these communities across the country.  There were also numerous unlicensed copies—the township I grew up in had it’s own version, “Cherokee Ranch”.  Most people are most familiar with the New York Levittown (one of the first), but there are many more.  One of the biggest is in Bucks County, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia.  Since I am a Philadelphian, this post will be mostly about that town.  While the Ozzie-and-Harriett image is somewhat true, some very rudimentary investigation reveals that there is a darker side to Levittown, too.

PA Historical Marker
The Levitt homes were constructed in an assembly-line style.  Various subcontractors would complete parts of homes in massive quantities—the foundation contractors would pour 20 or so foundations, and then move on.  Next, the framing contractors would come in and erect the frame on top of the slab (all the Levittown houses were built on slabs—no basements), then the roofers, etc.  This allowed for an incredible amount of output.  Also, materials were delivered to building sites in a “just-in-time” fashion in exact quantities—the lumber was even pre-cut (just like the Bennett homes)!  Bill Levitt bought materials in GINORMOUS quantities and eliminated the middleman.  Parts were prefabricated in a central shop, keeping costs to a bare minimum. 

Levittown Showroom - The "House of Levittown"
Buying a Levitt House
Buying a Levitt home was an interesting experience.  You visited a series of model homes, and chose the one you liked (and the one that matched your budget).  You then went to their showroom, and met with a representative who put a map in front of you.  You picked your lot and the orientation of your house.  Of course, you need to put a deposit down--$10.  $10.  That’s it.  Most of us probably have more than that in our wallets right now.  AND, if you were a veteran (lots of them floating around looking for houses for their new families in the 1950s), the $10 was waived!  Of course, you owed more at settlement (move-in time).  You owed $90 then.  Yes, mortgage payments followed, but the mortgages were solid, FHA-backed, and fixed-rate.  You needed to get approval, but it was still one hell of a deal.

An original Levittowner kitchen
What You Got
You got a brand-new house (obviously).  The walls were pale green.  The floors were black asphalt tile.  (Does your grandparent’s house have a finished basement?  Look down.  Yeah, that stuff.)  The kitchen was pink.  The bathrooms were fully tiled (not ceramic, though).  The kitchen was fully equipped with brand-new General Electric appliances.  In the current Home-Depot era, it’s unfathomable to think that people could not choose their wall colors, floor coverings or kitchen cabinets.  Back then, however, the thinking was “You’re not going to get a better deal on a brand-new house.  If you don’t like it, change it in the future.”  Most people agreed, because the houses sold quicker than Bill Levitt could put them up—at a rate of about 30 houses a day. 

The Models, Sections, Municipalities
There were six models of houses in PA’s Levittown—the Levittowner, the Jubilee, the Country-Clubber, the Rancher, the Pennsylvanian and the Colonial.  A home for every budget!  Each section of the development had a uniform house, though the orientation of the house could be turned to give some variation on the street.  Because each house was for a different budget and sections were uniform, this resulted in some de-facto segregation by income (Though not by race—Levittown was notoriously white.  More on that later.)  Additionally, Levittown is not its own municipality, and in fact straddles several different municipalities and several different school districts.  The income segregation continues to this day, as two of the school districts are very desirable and high performing, the third…not so much.  (I can already hear people crying foul at this assertion, but property values and demographic data don’t lie.  Sorry!)

The Dark Side of Levittown
Bill Levitt, despite being Jewish himself, would not sell to African Americans or Jewish people—claiming no bias, just a “good business sense”.  This resulted in a riot worthy of a movie in 1957, when the first African American family moved into the neighborhood.  When you moved in, you were also presented with a booklet of guidelines—including the prohibition of fences, how often you had to mow your lawn, what types of additions and exterior alterations were permitted, when you could put out a clothesline (and what type), etc.  The forerunner of today’s homeowner’s associations, this booklet was enforced for about the first 20 years of the development’s existence.  Not only were you buying a home, you were buying into a very prescripted way of life—and not a way of life that everyone agreed with.

The Levittowner Home
Design Philosophy
Alfred Levitt (the architect brother) openly professed admiration for Frank Lloyd Wright, and the many cost-saving design features in Wright's “Usonian” homes (expect a future post on these homes).  Levitt’s original 1951 Levittowner model reflects this—a very modern appearance, compact kitchens, open floor plan, carports rather than garages, slab construction, gravity heat, etc.  The living rooms were located at the rear of the home for privacy (something that current Americans do by putting “family” or “great” rooms at the rear of the house).  However, by the end of the development, the design of the “Colonial” (the last type of house to be built in the development) reflected America’s more conservative tastes by reverting to a more traditional design layout and aesthetic (and, in my opinion [it's MY blog], a much less exciting design).  See the examples below.

More on Levittown at a Later Date—including “Levittown Today!!!!”

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bennett Homes: "Better-Built", "Ready-Cut!"

Front Cover:  ISBN 0-486-27809-3
The Ray H. Bennett Lumber Company was a large lumber company based out of North Tonawanda, NY (not far from Buffalo, NY).  The company offered kit homes for sale via catalogue during most of first half of the 20th century.  Though the company is most famous for its homes from the 1910s and 1920s, the company was continuing to sell kit homes well into the 1950s.

The catalogue I have which first alerted me to Bennett (and to kit homes in general) is pictured at right and is available as a Dover reprint.  This 1920 catalogue is reprinted in full, and includes price lists of all the homes and the specifications for all the materials that ship in the kit.  There are sections at the back of the catalogue for detached garages and "summer cottages"--smaller homes with no plumbing.

The most expensive home in the catalogue is "The Colonial", at $4243.05, though if you paid in cash there was a 5% discount.  According to the US Inflation Calculator, in today's dollars that would be $47,887.49.  The least expensive home (considerably smaller) is the "Kenmore A", at 804.91.  It should be noted, however, that these prices do not include delivery.  The prices also do not include bath fixtures or extra kitchen cabinets, though they are available to purchase.  The homes were pre-cut, and were even "notched for easy assembly".  Below is a picture and plan of "The Colonial", and some other goodies from the catalogue.  Enjoy.
"The Colonial" - Bennett's most expensive home

Ready-Cut Makes it easy!
Accessorize your home with these "modern" conveniences, like....HEAT!

This is my favorite plan/design from the book.  Simple, yet striking.

Instant House: An Introduction

For years, I have poured over books of historical house plans and drawings.  Growing up in a suburb that was built largely during the the first golden age of mass-produced housing, I loved looking at these old plans and comparing them to existing houses.  While all houses are "built", there is something different about these houses.  They differ from the traditional custom-built house or the speculation development, not just in final product, but in the way the product arrived.  Ordering your own house out of a catalogue (or on the internet, in recent years) is a strange notion, yet there is something very American-consumer-culture about it.  Pick the one you like, pick up a phone, and one monetary transaction later, it's delivered where you want it.  It's strangely easy, and no different than ordering any other product off the internet.

Often times, mass-produced housing is looked down upon.  "Housing for poor people."  "Housing for low-class people."  "Too cookie-cutter."  These statements all have a kernel of truth to them, but in reality do not hold up.  If this type of housing were truly for the dregs of society, then why have so many major architects tried their hand at designing this type of house?  Frank Lloyd Wright, R. Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, etc.  These architects all believed that the average American consumer deserved quality housing at an affordable price.

Mass-Produced housing generally falls into one of four categories, and I will try to keep the vocabulary constant on this blog (that's the good academic in me).

Manufactured Homes:  Also called mobile homes, these homes are homes with permanent chassis and wheels designed for transportation multiple times.  This is the standard "trailer park" house.

Modular Homes:  These houses are built in a factory setting in multiple sections and are assembled at the construction site.  Rarely are the homes shipped completed, there are often multiple modules that are combined to create a unique home.  These are often referred to as "prefabricated" housing, though manufactured homes also fall into that category.

Mass-Produced Homes:  These types of homes are built on-site, but in massive quantities at the same time.  Often, they have modular components, but are generally "stick-built".  If you've seen or read anything about Levittown, then you know what this is.

Kit Homes:  These homes are for the do-it-yourselfers.  Made famous by the Sears & Roebuck catalogue, when you ordered one of these homes, you got plans, instructions, and a complete set of materials to build your own home.  These are sometimes referred to as "ready-cut" homes, because the lumber often arrived cut.

Hopefully, this site will shed some light on this often mis-understood type of housing that is so common throughout the American landscape.