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C925
Levittown, USA: Birthplace of Suburbia

Jeffrey Syken

"See a need, fill a need"

In summary, that’s what the phenomenon of the post-WWII Levittown suburban housing development/s boiled down to: filling a need. Considered to be “the industry that capitalism forgot,” during the first half of the 20th century the average U.S. home builder typically built only four or five houses per year – even less during the lean years of the depression. With the attack on Pearl Harbor came “total war,” with all resources going to the war effort, resulting in a nearly half-decade contribution to the “housing famine.” With war’s end, millions of G.I.s would be returning home, ready to return to civilian life after their long ordeal. To thank them for their service to the nation and ease their transition, Congress passed, and FDR signed, the “Serviceman’s Readjustment Act” (a/k/a “G.I. Bill”) in 1944, providing veterans with well-deserved housing, education and employment benefits/opportunities. Accompanying the veterans’ return would be a “Baby Boom,” the likes of which the world had never seen. The Federal Government estimated at least five million new houses needed to be built in the immediate postwar years.

One of the people who realized early on the problems-to-be of postwar housing was an officer in the U.S. Navy’s “Seabees” - his name was William J. Levitt. He listened intently to the men under his command as they expressed their postwar plans, all of which seemed to include a house somewhere. Being in the housing business prior to WWII, he understood better than most that they would be coming home to a seller’s market, with most having to live in cramped apartments and/or basements with relatives due to the severe housing shortage. Realizing the key to solving the problem lay in mass-producing housing in the same way General Motors mass-produced automobiles, Bill Levitt instructed his partners in Levitt & Sons (his brother Alfred and his father Abraham) to buy land on Long Island while he was still in the service, and so they did. With the land, the need, the skills learned as a Seabee and with the Federal Government guaranteeing loans to veterans (with no down payment required and a very reasonable monthly charge), the stage was set for the first “Levittown” to be built on 1,200 acres of former Long Island potato farms.

Father Abraham – a real estate lawyer by profession, would provide the legal (and gardening) advice while younger brother Alfred – a former art student, would provide the architectural designs. A natural-born salesman, Bill Levitt would be the “point man,” doing for housing what Henry Ford did for the assembly line, only in reverse. So it was that the first mass-produced suburban development came-to-be, forty miles east of New York City, where most of the residents worked. Being a veteran himself, Bill Levitt understood better than most the hopes, desires and needs of those he was providing basic shelter for. They were simple FHA-inspired two-bedroom Cape Cods with expandable attics, built atop a slab-on-grade foundation (for speed and economy) with integral radiant-floor heating. Architectural dilettante would mock and ridicule them as the “slums of the future,” but to the veterans and their young families they were “manna-from-heaven.” Given their “cookie-cutter” conformity, each owner would shape the basic house and plot to their needs in the coming years in ways the Levitt’s could not foresee, nor did they discourage. The end result was Levittown, the acknowledged “Birthplace of Suburbia.”

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.


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