New York Suburb of Levittown

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New York Suburb of Levittown

Photograph

By: Arthur Green

Date: April 13, 1949

Source: Corbis Corporation

About the Author: This photograph is part of the collection of the Corbis Corporation, headquartered in Seattle, with a worldwide archive of over seventy million images.

INTRODUCTION

In the decades prior to World War II (1939–1945), many people in the United States lived in cramped apartments in the cities and border towns to the cities. In the 1920s, the home building industry was dominated by a few builders who completed, on average, four to five homes per year. The Great Depression and World War II, however, would mark a shift in the attitudes toward home buying. Following the depression, the federal government enacted legislation under Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policies to reconstruct the mortgage system. The introduction of a system of mortgage insurance took the risk out of speculative development. This enabled developers such as the Levitts to begin large scale operations of development.

Abraham Levitt, a real estate attorney, also dabbled in real estate investing in the 1930s. During the depression, Levitt held an investment on a Rockville Centre property that was about to be defaulted on by the developer. In order to protect his investment, Abraham Levitt and his sons, Alfred and William, created Levitt and Sons, a construction company. As a result of the successful completion of the Rockville Centre development, called Strathmore, Levitt and Sons sought to create more efficient methods of constructing. The company began purchasing land and building homes throughout the Great Depression.

In 1941, Levitt and Sons was awarded a contract from the federal government to build 2,350 homes for shipyard defense workers in Norfolk, Virginia. Following the completion of this project, William enlisted in the U.S. Navy. The experience of building large-scale numbers of units, in addition to his time in the service and a study of assembly line techniques employed by the auto industry, led William Levitt to propose the building of low-cost, mass-produced homes for war veterans.

As World War II came to a close, the federal government continued to enact programs that would allow for the housing boom that followed the war. The Federal Housing Administration guaranteed the loans that were made to builders, which lessened the risk involved in speculative building. Federal highway building programs offered access to cities to those who lived outside. In addition, the veterans returning from the war front were faced with a housing shortage and as a provision of the G.I. Bill were offered low-interest mortgages.

During the depression, the region in the Hemp-stead Plains in Nassau County, NY called the Island of Trees was largely agricultural. However, the golden nematode blight began to affect the potato farms in the area. Farmers were forced to sell off their lands for survival. In 1946, Levitt and Sons purchased a 1,000 acre potato farm that would later be developed into Levittown.

PRIMARY SOURCE

THE NEW YORK SUBURB OF LEVITTOWN

See primary source image.

SIGNIFICANCE

The first suburbs in the United States were in Levittown, New York, approximately twenty-five miles east of Manhattan. In 1946, Levitt and Sons purchased a 1,000-acre potato farm and the next year announced the plan to build 2,000 rental homes earmarked for service members returning from the war. Within days, newspapers reported that the 2,000 homes had been rented. The production of homes had become so efficient that by 1948, the company was completing thirty homes per day. In 1949, Levitt and Sons began to sell their "ranch" homes which sat on 1/7-acre lots. Prospective buyers could choose from five different models that varied only in their exterior color, roof line, and window placements. The 750-square foot homes had two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, and unfinished attic. There was no garage. The homes were outfitted with General Electric stoves and refrigerators and stainless steel sinks and cabinets. In order to purchase or rent these homes, individuals were required to sign a covenant that promised not to allow blacks to use or occupy the property.

William Levitt modeled the assembly line techniques seen in the automobile industry to create the low-cost homes. Dividing the home building process into twenty-seven operations, Levitt used his workers, often non-union and unskilled, as the moveable part of the assembly line. Teams would move from site to site completing their operations. This revolutionary change to home building resulted in William Levitt's appearance on Time magazine's front cover. From 1947 to 1951, Levitt and Sons built 17,447 homes.

By revolutionizing the mass production of homes, Levitt made home buying a possibility to many. As builders began to replicate his mass production of homes, suburbs quickly began to develop across the nation.

FURTHER RESOURCES

Periodicals

Guido, Daniel Walker. "Pioneers of Production Home Building." Builder, May 1, 2001.

Gutis, Philip, S. "Levittown, L.I. at 40: Once a Solution, Now a Problem." New York Times, September 21, 1987.

Lacayo, Richard. "Time 100: Suburban Legend William Levitt" Time, December 7, 1998.

Leopold, Ellen. "The Levittown Legacy." Monthly Review 56 (6) (November 1, 2000).

Web site

Levittown Historical Society "Levittown History." 〈http://www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org/index2.htm〉 (accessed June 15, 2006).

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New York Suburb of Levittown