Suburban Legend WILLIAM LEVITT

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

  • Share
  • Read Later

(3 of 3)

In the larger culture, Levitt's achievement was contested ground. Levittown entered 20th century folklore as the place where democratic equality edged into an unnerving conformity. By stamping whole townships onto old farmland, Levitt brought the machine into the garden in a very literal way. Unlike the automobile or the radio, the home was an ancient possession, a thing too intimate to be mass-produced without offending notions of Yankee individuality that were already under intense pressure from modernity. And as Levittown matured, suburbia itself began to look like humanity at room temperature, a place where the true countryside was denatured, while the true civilization of the cities collapsed into strip malls and dinner theater.

Within that context, Levittown became the anti-Williamsburg: Not a re-creation of some idealized past but a living glimpse of the ticky-tacky future. The social critic Lewis Mumford called it "a low-grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible." Levittown was also tainted at birth by the offhand racism of midcentury America. Though Levittown is racially mixed today, for years Levitt's sales contracts barred resale to African Americans. He once offered to build a separate development for blacks but refused to integrate his white Levitt developments. "We can solve a housing problem, or we can try to solve a racial problem," he once said. "But we can't combine the two." In 1963 his all-white policies led to civil rights demonstrations at another Levitt subdivision, in Bowie, Md.

Building modest homes made Levitt rich. In 1968, after his company had built more than 140,000 houses around the world, Levitt & Sons was sold to ITT Corp. for $92 million in stock, most of which went to him. That fortune bought, among other things, a 237-ft. yacht, La Belle Simone, named for his third wife, and a 30-room mansion in Mill Neck, N.Y. But the deal barred him from the domestic construction business for 10 years. Within four years, the ITT stock, which he had been using as collateral to build subdivisions in places like Iran, Venezuela and Nigeria, lost 90% of its value. When those foreign projects foundered, he was left with millions of dollars in debt.

Long before his death in 1994, Bill Levitt fully understood that it was Levittown, a working stiff's utopia, that had been his great and intricate achievement. Levittown isn't a visionary product of high design. No major architect went near the place. It was what you get when a canny businessman sees a massive public appetite and applies capital and logistics in a timely fashion.

Unlike the workers' housing that Le Corbusier designed near Bordeaux in France, where individual touches by the mere inhabitants offend the architect's conception, Levitt homes were made to be customized. The avid householders of Levittown got busy, adding porches, dormers and new wings, the outcroppings of anybody's headlong life. The line on their town used to be that Levitt houses were indistinguishable from one another, and the people would be too. But the place is now, as a town is supposed to be, a work in progress, a setting that can be held to the light at any angle.

And William Levitt, a man who just about never read a novel, turned out to be the author of an entire world.

Richard Lacayo, who writes about politics and culture for TIME, grew up in Levittown

On The Home-Building Front

The Catalog House
From 1908 to 1940, Sears reigned in mail-order houses, selling 100,000, some for as little as $107. They came in 450 styles, from the bungalow "Avalon," with its wraparound porch, to the neoclassical "Magnolia," complete with a porte cochere and a two-story portico.

The Ranch
The Split Level Based on Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie-style homes, these stripped down, low-slung houses with attached garages became the quintessential style for returning vets armed with G.I. loans. They sprouted in suburban developments and came with such fruits of victory as backyards and dishwashers.

Restoration
Spurred on by the senseless destruction of such historic buildings as New York City's Pennsylvania Station, citizens began exploring urban renewal. Many started simply by reclaiming row houses and Queen Annes a block at a time. Homeowners learned to strip paint and repair mantelpieces, and gave rise to the home-improvement industry.

The Gated Community
Many developments, mostly wealthy ones in which the owners fear for their safety, have erected barriers and hired security patrols. In the process, some argue, they have created the anti-community, a society cut off from its surroundings.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. Next Page