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Housing's Historic Levittown Turns 50

Written by on Thursday, 25 July 2002 7:00 pm
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It was 1952 and, for housing, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times.

A little more than half a decade after World War II ended, working-class families began plunking down a hard-earned $200 and paying $63 a month (including taxes) to purchase a new, appliance-laden, $10,000 Cape Cod-style house with a verdant lawn in suburban Philadelphia.

(Median home prices today in Levittown are about $130,000.)

For the next five years, William J. Levitt, then president of the family-owned developer Levitt & Sons, would construct homes with such assembly line speed the company raised as many as 40 homes a day.

"We are not builders. We are manufacturers," Levitt proudly declared at the time.

Almost overnight, the community named Levittown grew enough to be Pennsylvania's 10th largest city and just as quickly became synonymous with everything good, bad and ugly about suburbia.

When completed, the sprawling, no-blacks-allowed community of cookie-cutter homes and identical streets was, for its time, the largest planned community constructed by a single builder.

Completed in 1958, it transformed 5,500 acres of farm land in lower Bucks County into a community with churches, schools, Olympic-sized swimming pools, shopping centers and, ultimately, 17,311 single-family homes.

This year, the town celebrates it's 50th anniversary with town events and a major exhibit in Harrisburg, PA at the State Museum of Pennsylvania "Levittown, Pa. -- Building the Suburban Dream".

Often criticized, but widely copied, Levittown has been considered both a monument to the American Dream at its best and suburban sprawl at its worst.

Levittown was initially more economically and ethnically diverse than most communities of the time as Jewish families from the row houses of Philadelphia and Trenton and Roman Catholics from Pennsylvania's coal-mining towns converged on the 40 neighborhoods of the new-town-from-the-ground-up in search of middle-class lifestyle. Initially some 70,000-plus residents settled there.

The state museum exhibit is a well-designed study in Americana, running through Jan. 5, 2003. It includes original marketing documents that describe the suburb as "the most perfectly planned community in the U.S.," which, like so many other marketing statements, was only partially true.

There were actually three "Levittowns". The first was a Hempstead, Long Island, NY development of 6,000 homes and the third a 12,000-home development in what is now Willingboro, NJ, which followed history's best-known Levittown, Levittown, PA.

Like the others, Levittown, PA embodied many of the trends associated with postwar life from the baby boom (few of the original heads-of-households were older than 30) to the struggle for civil rights. Perhaps what it represented most, however, was raw consumerism from the desire to own a home to strutting around in shiny new shoes.

The neon-lighted Levittown Shop-a-rama open-air mall opened in 1952 with 90 stores including Woolworth's, Kresge's, Sears, Penneys, and others. With over 60 vendors, including 16 shoe stores, the 60-acre center boasted 5,000 parking spots and was considered the largest pedestrian mall east of the Mississippi. It served as Levittown's Main Street and community center and hosted everything from beauty pageants to political rallies, including a speech by John F. Kennedy on the presidential campaign trail.

Earlier this year, however, a local writer referred to the dilapidated strip, now a ghost of its former glory and due to be razed, as "a rundown eyesore" and a "set for an Armageddon movie".

The state museum exhibit explores life in Levittown during the 1950s though historic photographs, objects, documents, and videos and is presented in three sections.

  • Building Levittown.

    One section of the exhibit focuses on designing, building and marketing the icon of suburbia from 1952 to 1958. The museum is displaying original blueprints, architectural elevations, plot maps, building materials and the original promotional material distributed by Levitt & Sons, including a rare sales billboard advertising homes for $200 down. The exhibit will also feature vintage film footage from a 1954 Levittown documentary, "A City Is Born," with interviews of William J. Levitt, aerial views of "the fastest growing city in the USA;" and time lapse photography of a Levittown house being constructed in 45 seconds.

  • Postwar Life.

    A second display takes a look at suburban life from the view of Levittown's early "settlers"; the impact of the baby boom; the character of community life; and a vignette offering a glimpse into family life through a partially reconstructed patio scene. A highlight of the exhibit also reveals Levittown helped give birth to kitsch. The museum has recreated a full-scale pink General Electric kitchen modeled after those in the 1958 Levittown "Jubilee" model house. Levittown's kitchens -- described as "all electric, built in, and both modern and efficient" --were a major selling point, especially among women consumers. Then, as now, women in the household often were instrumental in home buying decisions.

    The larger Levittown exhibit is joining the museum's popular ongoing Daisy Myers exhibit, which tells the story of the first black family to settle in Levittown in 1957.

    Levitt originally refused to sell to blacks and after Daisy and William Myers managed to move in with the help of an existing resident, hostile mobs of neighbors assembled outside the couple's house for months, dispersing only after the governor called in state troopers to protect the family. The Myers later moved from Levittown. The Myers story was captured in a rare 16 millimeter film documentary held by San Jose, CA-based Academic Film Archive of North America.

    Critics of Levittown pointed to particularly rigid rules in the "Homeowners Guide" presented to each new home owner.

    The rules said in part "No fabricated fences...Mow your lawn and remove weeds at least once a week between April 15th and November 15th...Laundry can be hung in the rear, but please use one of the revolving portable dryers. Old-fashioned clotheslines strung across a lawn look messy. And please don't leave laundry hanging out on Sundays or holidays when you and your neighbors are most likely to be relaxing on your rear lawn."

  • Levittown Today.

    The third section of the exhibit "Coming Home: Levittown Revisited" is a photography exhibit of Levittown today by renown photojournalist Joan Klatchko . Klatchko grew up in Levittown, but traveled the globe working as a free-lance photographer. Klatchko who has traveled from Borneo to Bangladesh and from Patagonia to Penang admits that some of her strangest encounters occurred in Levittown a suburb slated for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

    Levittown Links:

    Levittown, PA is one of the most electronically documented towns on the Internet. Here are some of the best links. Each link is a source of still more links.

  • Bucks County's Official "Levittown 50th Anniversary" celebration page.

  • Levittowners.com is a public Web site for those who grew up in Levittown.

  • Levittown Home Page and mirror site Raiders of the Lost Levittown by Tom Krewiec, is one of the best private Web sites about Levittown. It includes links to telling historic film newsreels digitized for downloading.

  • Levittown's Virtual Photo Album contains an extensive collection of now-and- then photos, including photos from the state museum exhibit.

  • Bucks County Courier Time's coverage of Levittown's 50th Anniversary offers a commemorative keepsake "Levittown's 50th Anniversary" issue.

  • "Levittown Memories" is a very personal collection of Levittown memories produced by one of the original Levittown residents.

  • "Levittown at 50" is a Monopoly-like board game.

  • William J. Levitt, 83, talks about his three Levittowns during a 1993 interview.

  • More Levittown links.
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      About the author, Broderick Perkins

    Individual news stories are based upon the opinions of the writer and does not reflect the opinion of Realty Times.