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.
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|
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!!!!”