Suburban Legend WILLIAM LEVITT

His answer to a postwar housing crisis created a new kind of home life and culture: suburbia

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Levitt liked to compare himself to General Motors. "We channel labor and materials to a stationary outdoor assembly line instead of bringing them together inside a factory." To keep down lumber costs, the Levitts bought their own forests and built a sawmill in Oregon. They purchased appliances direct from the manufacturer, cutting out the distributor's markup. They even made their own nails. Levitt's methods kept costs so low that in the first years the houses, which typically sat on a seventh-of-an-acre lot, could sell for just $7,990, a price that still allowed the Levitts a profit of about $1,000. (They sell today for about $155,000.)

Yet however much it may have been a triumph of free enterprise, Levittown depended on massive government assistance. The Federal Housing Administration guaranteed the loans that banks made to builders. Then the Veterans Administration gave buyers low-interest mortgages to purchase those houses.

Thus the risk to the lenders was small, and so were the houses: 750 sq. ft., two bedrooms, living room and kitchen, with an unfinished second floor and no garage. All the same, compared with the cramped arrangements of the cities, even a place that size seemed sumptuous and full of potential. Levitt understood this well enough to see himself as more than a builder. He was a prime facilitator of the American Dream in its cold war formulation. "No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist," he once said. "He has too much to do."

The Levitt men were a typical family. They loved each other. They were also a cocoon of misfits who drove each other crazy. Father Abe was a onetime Brooklyn lawyer and would-be philosopher. Bill recalled that Abe liked to give the impression that he knew the distance in light-years to every star. Abe eventually became Levittown's unofficial landscape theorist. He could face a reporter with a fistful of dahlias and tell him, with a straight face: "Every man has a right to flowers!" Brother Alfred designed the houses and grumbled about how credit always went to Bill, the idea man, organizer and salesman.

On Saturdays, in a lordly mood that can only be imagined by anyone who has not built his own town, Levitt would drive his black Cadillac convertible around the streets of his town, checking out what the citizens were doing across the abundant stage he had constructed for them, his ears attuned to local gossip, his eyes to lawn maintenance. (In the early years, householders who didn't mow their grass would find Levitt gardeners dispatched to do it and a bill for the job in their mailbox.) He was the consummate marketing guy, unmoved by books, paintings or music. His first wife once complained that she had dragged him to see Death of a Salesman but couldn't get him to identify with the title character.

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