Many volumes have been written which provide
comprehensive histories of Levittown, including its "pre-history" as a
center of early Long Island aviation and its prominence as the host of the 1908
through 1910 Vanderbilt Cup Races. Some of these are available at
our Museum Shop or at various Long Island
libraries. For those of you who are interested in a basic outline, the
following "mini-history" is extracted from the Levittown Historical
Society's History Of Levittown, New York, by Lynne Matarrese.
In The Beginning: Island Trees
Abraham Levitt was a real estate lawyer by trade, but also dabbled in real estate investment, purchasing land and selling it off to developers in the late 1920s. When the onset of the 1930's Great Depression caused the developer of a Rockville Centre property to default on his payments, the senior Levitt was forced to complete the development himself to protect his investment. Having no previous experience with construction, he called on his two sons, in college at the time, for help. Together, Levitt & Sons labored to learn everything there was to know about construction techniques, and together, they completed the project.
Strathmore, as the upscale Rockville Centre development was named, was such a success that Levitt and Sons continued to purchase land and build new homes throughout the Depression. With each new development, their construction methods became more and more efficient.
When the U.S. entered WWII in 1941, Levitt and Sons won a Navy contract to build homes for shipyard workers in Norfolk, Virginia. Here, they developed and perfected the mass production techniques they later used in the construction of Levittown, New York. It may have also been this experience that inspired William, the older of the Levitt sons, to enlist in the Navy in 1943.
Meanwhile, back home in Island Trees, the golden nematode had gained a strong foothold
and was wiping out a large part of the area's potato crop, on which many local farmers depended
for survival. By 1945 and the end of World War II, Island Trees farmers
began looking to sell off affected land as quickly as they could.
At the same time, 16 million GI's were returning from either Europe, the Pacific, or from military bases in the United States. Many planned to marry and raise families. But these former soldiers were running into trouble in their search to find suitable shelter for their new families. The war had created a shortage of construction materials and the housing industry had fallen off rapidly. At the end of 1945, the US was in dire need of about five million houses, as ex-GIs and their families were living with their parents or in rented attics, basements, or unheated summer bungalows. Some even lived in barns, trolley cars, and tool sheds.
During his service in Hawaii, Lieutenant William Levitt realized that the urgent need for post-war housing and the availability of cheap farmland provided a golden opportunity for his family to capitalize on their Island Trees property. He proposed to his father and brother that Levitt & Sons divide the former potato field into small lots and build simple, inexpensive mass-produced homes for veterans and their families. These returning servicemen were entitled to low-interest, insured "GI Loans," which would make the new Levitt homes easily affordable and, therefore, highly attractive.
In order to build their homes
cheaper and faster, Levitt and Sons decided to eliminate basements and build
their new homes on
concrete slabs, as they had in Norfolk, Virginia. This practice was prohibited in the Town Of
Hempstead, but, because the need for housing was so urgent, the Town modified
the Building Code to allow the Levitts to proceed with their plan.
Levitt and Sons used many of the building methods they had used over the years in previous developments, but reorganized these methods for even better efficiency and cost savings. All of the lumber was precut and shipped from a lumber yard they owned in Blue Lake, California, where they erected a nail factory as well. An abandoned rail line was re-opened to bring construction materials to Island Trees. To keep costs down, non-union contractors were used, a move met with heavy opposition. The production line technique used to build this new development was so successful that, by July of 1948, the Levitts were turning out thirty houses a day.
Even at this pace, the Levitts could not keep up with the demand. Although all 2,000 homes had been rented almost immediately, hundreds of veterans were still applying, so the Levitts decided to build an additional 4,000 houses. The community soon had its own schools, its own postal delivery; even phone service and streetlights!
Then, in 1949, Levitt and Sons discontinued building rental houses and turned their attention to building larger, more modern houses, which they called "ranches" and which they would offer for sale at $7,990. All a prospective buyer needed was a $90 deposit and payments of $58 per month. The Levitt ranch measured 32' by 25' and came in five different models, differing only by exterior color, roof line, and the placement of windows. Like previous Levitt homes, the ranch was built on a concrete slab with radiant heating coils. It had no garage, and came with an expandable attic. The kitchen was outfitted with a General Electric stove and refrigerator, stainless steel sink and cabinets, the latest Bendix washer, and a York oil burner. Immediately, the demand for the new Levitt ranches was so overwhelming that even the procedure for purchasing them had to be modified to incorporate "assembly line" methods. Once these techniques were put into action, a buyer could choose a house and sign a contract for it within three minutes.
So great and so far-reaching was the success of the Levittown community that on July 3, 1950, William Levitt was featured on the front cover of Time Magazine. This success continued throughout 1950 and 1951, by which time the Levitts had constructed 17,447 homes in Levittown and the immediate surrounding areas.
As the GI homeowners settled into well-paying jobs and
began to spawn families, the Levitt models and the surrounding community were
modified to suit the needs of growing families. 1950 ranches came with a
carport and a 12 1/2 inch Admiral TV set built into the living room
staircase. The 1951 model included a partially finished attic. Thousand
Lanes, a magazine devoted to the decorating, expanding, and remodeling of Levitt homes
became a must-have for Levittown residents. Shopping centers, playgrounds, and a
$250,000 community center sprang up to accommodate Levittown's active
residents. The July, 1951 issue of the Nassau Daily Review Star
reported that "Levittown's fame has spread so widely, both in America and
abroad that it now ranks near the Statue of Liberty among the seven wonders
which New York City visitors want to see!"