Levittown, Pa.
Building the Suburban Dream
 

Explore the exhibit menu:
Planning, Building and Selling Levittown

Crabgrass Frontiers

The Most Perfectly Planned Community

The Most House for the Most Money

Assembly Line Housing

Advertising the American Dream


The Suburban Dream
Levittown Kitchen


Exhibit acknowledgements

 

Crabgrass Frontiers
LEVITT & SONS AND THE POST WWII HOUSING BOOM


for sale cartoon

Between 1950 and 1960, 20 million people were drawn to mass housing developments on the outskirts of America's cities. In terms of sheer numbers, the move to the suburbs outstripped the fabled Westward migration of the 1800s many times over.

Suburbia cartoon. [Reprinted from Electrical Merchandising, July 1957]

The new suburbs combined country comforts with city conveniences. With the help of modern production and financing methods, builders like Levitt and Sons made the American dream of homeownership affordable to millions.


Reproduction poster or advertisement addressing needs of returning WWII vets. Stranded baby carriage; from Chicago Tribune, 1947.

Reproduction poster or advertisement addressing needs of returning WWII vets.

Stranded baby carriage. [Chicago Tribune, 1947]

Returning war veterans sparked an unprecedented demand for housing after World War II. Cheaper materials and government-backed mortgages enabled home builders to meet that demand.


"The Henry Ford of Housing"

"Any fool can build homes—what counts is how many you can sell for how little."
William J. Levitt

Abraham, William and Alfred Levitt pose for a Fortune Magazine feature story in 1952. William served as president and spokesman; brother Alfred served as architect.Started in 1929 by attorney Abraham Levitt, Levitt and Sons quickly became one of the nation’s largest home builders.

Abraham, William and Alfred Levitt pose for a Fortune Magazine feature story in 1952. William served as president and spokesman; brother Alfred served as architect.

During the 1930s, the Levitts custom built a few hundred houses a year, mostly on Long Island. In 1941 the firm won a government contract to build 2200 defense housing units in Norfolk, Virginia. It was the Levitts first—but certainly not last—venture in mass housing.


Before photoBefore and after aerials showing Island Trees, New York, site of the first Levittown development.After photo


Cape Cod rendering Cap Cod rendering

Architect’s rendering of two versions of the 1947 Cape Cod built in Island Trees (later Levittown), New York.

The first Levittown sprang to life in 1947 on 1200 acres of potato fields on Long Island. To speed production and cut costs, Levitt offered just two basic house types. The scale of the project attracted national attention and made Levitt and Sons a household name. Veterans and their families applied by the thousands to rent and later buy one of Levitt’s mass-produced homes.

In 1950, Time Magazine estimated that Levitt and Sons built one out of every 8 houses in United States. Levitt remained the nation’s largest home builder through most of the 1950s.

In 1998, Time again recognized Levitt’s significance, calling his developments "as much an achievement of [their] cultural moment as Venice or Jerusalem." Critics, though, linked Levittown with the beginnings of suburban sprawl.

Unlike other builders who merely constructed houses, Levitt built entire communities. Pennsylvania’s Levittown was one of three "package" suburbs developed between 1947 and 1959. The third Levittown, located just across the Delaware River in New Jersey, changed its name back to Willingboro in 1963.


Levitt turns to Pennsylvania

Cover of special delaware valley edition of the philadelphia inquirer. collections state museum.
Cover of special "Delaware Valley" edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer. [Collections of The State Museum]

The opening of U.S. Steel’s Fairless Works in 1952 (mural photo) drew workers from around the state. Steelworkers John Kabaci and Andrew Gargus both moved to Levittown from Western Pennsylvania. As noted on his lunch box, Kabaci worked in the plant’s paint department. Jim Sheridan (hardhat) came to Levittown from a small mining town near Scranton.

In 1951, rural lower Bucks County was poised for growth.

Lower Bucks was close to population centers (Philadelphia and Trenton), improved highways (including the Pennsylvania Turnpike) and, best of all, jobs. U.S. Steel broke ground for its new Fairless Works Division along the western bank of the Delaware River in early 1951. At the time, the Fairless Works was the second largest integrated plant on the East Coast, and the 12th largest steel mill in the country.

While Levittown, L.I. catered to veterans and Manhattan commuters, Levittown, Pa. targeted blue-collar workers in the Delaware Valley. Promoters touted the region, just northeast of Philadelphia, as America’s Ruhr Valley.


"Little Boxes"

"It is a one-class community on a great scale, too congested for effective variety and too spread out for social relationships…Mechanically, it is admirably done. Socially, the design is backward."

Lewis Mumford, 1952

MR. LEVITT'S RESPONSE:

"What would you call the places our homeowners left to move out here? We give them something better and something they can pay for."

"The typical postwar development operator was a man who figured how many houses he could possibly cram onto a piece of land and have the local zoning board hold still for it…."

John Keats, The Crack in the Picture Window, 1956

Writers, artists and social critics derided mass housing developments as dull and shoddily built. While defending the integrity of his work, Levitt recognized some of Levittown’s shortcomings, particularly its lack of housing variety, and vowed to make improvements with his next project.

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State Museum of Pennsylvania Copyright © 2003 The State Museum of Pennsylvania