What Henry Ford was to the automobile, William Levitt was to the house.
Although, the assembly line method of building houses had first been tried during the 1920s, William Levitt was the first to apply it on a large scale. The assembly line method enabled him to build houses fast and cheap. They were cheap enough for most people of moderate means and blue-collar occupations (milkmen, truck drivers, school teachers, etc.) to be able to afford them.
The first place he offered houses built this way was the infamous Levittown, New York. He was the right man for the right time. After World War II, servicemen returned home, but there weren�t many homes to come home to. Wartime shortages had crippled the housing industry. The U.S. housing industry has always built about 1-1.25 million units a year. For a five year period, the number built neared zero.
Young men and women ready to get back to a normal life- get married and have families were forced to move in with parents and in-laws.
Most homebuilders of the time built about four homes a year. William Levitt intended to finish thirty to forty houses a day.
He bought 1200 acres of potato farmland on Long Island, about 25 miles east of Manhattan. On July 1, 1947, he broke ground on the first house in Levittown. It was the first of 17,000 houses he would build there.
William and his brother, Alfred, had built a few houses on his father�s land in Manhasset, New York. In 1941, they won a government contract to build 2350 housing units in Norfolk, Virginia for defense workers.
The Levitts broke the construction process into 27 operations and had teams specialized to each one. They set aside 20 acres for cutting lumber, mixing concrete and assembly.
A truck would deliver materials to each site, then the specialists would follow down the line of houses working on each house as their time came.
Each team was so specialized, for example, they had one team that painted with white paint. Another team painted with red paint. There was a man whose only job was to bolt down washing machines.
William Levitt looked upon his operation as the GM of the housing industry, although it was the assembly line in reverse. The workers moved down the line instead of the product moving.
To keep down costs even more, they made their own nails, bought forests and sawmill to make their own planks. They bought appliances directly from the manufacturer.
Each house had two bedrooms, measured 750 square feet and sat on 1/7th of an acre lots that were 60 feet wide. They had no garage, no basement, and an unfinished second floor.
Initially, the houses were rental units at $65 a month, but they soon switched to selling the houses. The first sixty or so residents that were renters were offered the opportunity to buy and they all did.
The first year the houses sold for $7990 and the Levitts made a profit of $1000 on each.
Levittown was a family operation. William Levitt took most of the credit because he was "Mr. Outside"-the salesman, spokesman, organizer and idea man. He brother, Alfred, was more of "Mr. Inside" and designed the houses. He resented William for taking the credit. Their father, Abe, a retired lawyer, was the self-appointed suburban philosopher and landscaping expert. They loved each other, but drove each other crazy.
They all believed they were on a noble crusade and were helping to bring about the American Dream.
William Levitt once said, "No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do."
Abe was known to shake a fistful of dahlias in a reporter's face and proclaim, "Every man has a right to flowers!"
Alfred, a self-taught architect, was virtually unknown by the residents of Levittown compared to his brother, Bill, and his father, Abe, who were always in view.
When Alfred was 24 years old, he spent 10 months watching Frank Lloyd Wright build publisher Ben Rehburg's house in Great Neck, New York. The house was a sweeping horizontal glass structure based on Wright's earlier Prairie School designs.
Alfred was inspired by Wright's utopian ideas-openness of plan and unity of interior and landscape. He was not as enamored at Wright's elitism where 9 out of 10 bricks delivered were rejected.
Levittown houses were a combination of Alfred's lofty ideals and William's fiscal realism.
Borrowing from Frank Lloyd Wright, Alfred made the double-sided fireplace the focal point of the house. One side faced the living room and the other side faced the kitchen.
The original 1947 houses were of a Cape Cod design. By the late 1940s, everything California was the rage throughout the United States and the California ranch house was in demand.
Following that trend, in 1949, the Levitts changed the floor plan to 800 square foot ranch houses, designing the house by trial and error. They built and tore down 30 models at a cost of $50,000.
The plan they decided on turned their original floor plan 180 degrees. The kitchen was moved to the front of the house- both to make mother a part of everything going on in the house from guests arriving to the family roasting hot dogs in the fireplace and to save money by putting it closer to the sewer line.
The living room rotated to the back of the house. It measured 12 X 19 and featured sixteen feet of double glazed thermopaned windows across the back, which made the room look bigger. This was an idea Alfred got from Wright as well as studying White Castle hamburger stands.
He imbedded radiant heat coils in the slab to heat the house, an idea from the Romans who diverted hot water springs under their stone floors.
The bedrooms measured 12 X 12 and 8 X 12 with built-in closets for each.
Instead of plaster, they used sheetrock which was cheaper and could be put up by unskilled workers. Floors were black asbestos tiles which were plentiful and cheap, though they tended to crumble after a while. They wrapped the house in 32 inch by 96 inch Colorbestos sheets instead of shingles, again because it was plentiful and cheap.
The second floor was left unfinished, basements were left out, and in what would cause the biggest Levitt family argument, there was no garage. Alfred was against garages. William and Abe finally got him to consent to adding carports.
Their whole idea was to build houses to be sold for less than $10,000 so buyers could get federally backed loans.
In the kitchen, they installed pre-assembled white metal Tracy cabinets, which were much faster and cheaper to install than wood. They were also trendy at the time- even the White House had them.
They bought appliances direct from the manufacturer by the train load: Bendix washers, GE refrigerators and stoves and installed them in a fully outfitted kitchen. It was a radical and expensive idea but a marketing winner because young families buying their first house would have little money left over to buy them.
Levittown didn�t win many awards among architect circles and has often been criticized by social commentators for creating the "soulessness" of suburbia. It probably inspire the song- Little Boxes with its chorus about the little boxes made of "ticky-tacky".
But, Levittown served its purpose well. It was built to take care of immediate housing needs- fast and cheap, but still sturdy with plenty of opportunity for adding on and remodeling.
Today, it is impossible to find a Levittown house in its original form. The houses now resell for $150,000 to $250,000.
Instead of straight lines, the streets were made to curve to make it prettier. They built the main road- Levittown Parkway which went across the development. Then, all of the streets in each little community would start with the same letter as the name of the section. For example, all of the streets in the section called Strawberry Hill started with S.
The visionary Robert Moses built the Long Island Expressway from New York City passing near Levittown. It became the model for the future interstate system.
On weekends, William Levitt was known to drive his black Cadillac convertible through Levittown like a lord surveying his manor. He loved to watch how people were living in this place that he had built for them. They were like actors moving across his stage. If he noticed that someone was not keeping their lawn mowed, he would send out a crew to take care of it along with a bill for the work left in their mailbox.
Abe would meander through Levittown dispensing landscaping advice. If he saw that someone was not keeping up their lawn, he would knock on their door and tell them they should be ashamed of themselves.
Most residents became close friends with their neighbors. They all tended to be young families with children in the same age range. The kids had plenty of playmates. Long Island and Levittown in the 40�s and 50�s were sometimes refered to as "fertile acres". The Levitts built no fences between yards and for years the homeowners left Levittown unfenced. They would gather together in their communal backyards and celebrate holidays such as July 4th together with potluck picnics and barbecues.
Most families in the early days only had one car. The wives that drove their husbands to the train station and got to keep the car all day were highly prized friends.
Though Levittown is racially mixed, today, for years the Levitt�s sales contracts barred resale to African Americans. William Levitt said, "We can solve housing problems or we can try to solve social problems, but we cannot combine the two." William Levitt knew that during the 40s and 50s, whites would not buy homes in neighborhoods that sold to black families. He once offered to build a separate development for blacks. In 1963, his all-white policies led to civil rights demonstrations at another Levitt development in Bowie, Maryland.
By 1968, the Levitt's had built over 140,000 houses around the world. They sold the company to ITT for $92 million in stock. Part of the deal was that they could not build houses in the United States for ten years.
William Levitt used the stock as collateral to build developments in places like Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria, France and Israel. His methods did not translate well and by 1972, the ITT stock had lost 90% of its value, which left him pretty much broke.
William Levitt died in 1994.
In an interview shortly before his death, he was asked what he thought his legacy would be?
He said, "A guy that I suppose gave value for low-cost housing. Not somebody that gave value for half-million dollar houses. Anybody can do that."