Articles

WE LIVE IN THE WORLD'S MOST FAMOUS HOUSE

JAMES DUGAN May 1 1952
Articles

WE LIVE IN THE WORLD'S MOST FAMOUS HOUSE

JAMES DUGAN May 1 1952

WE LIVE IN THE WORLD'S MOST FAMOUS HOUSE

Articles

For eight thousand dollars a family home with built-in

television, thermopane windows, shrubs and swimming pools at hand---

JAMES DUGAN

WHEN my wife and I took possession of the most famous house in the world in Levittown, N.Y., the lawyer representing Levitt and Sons, builders, gave us a fleeting glimpse of the $7,990 mortgage cheque lent us by a bank. We endorsed it and signed a pile of documents. The attorney handed us two keys and said, “Enjoy your new home.” “Where is it?” we asked. He said, “Hmm, 18 Merry Lane. Over on the other side of Newbridge Road somewhere.” Nobody in Levitt and Sons real-estate office could tell us where it was, nor could the Levittown Tribune next door.

Employing the science of deduction we drove four miles northwest past some of Levittown’s seventeen thousand five hundred houses, looking for the mud-and-litter evidence of new building. After an hour we found No. 18, a handsome brown and grey two-story ranch-style house. The keys fitted the door.

We entered through the aseptic kitchen. The radiant heat imbedded below the asphalt f ile floor had been turned on for some time while specialists installed the electric machines, refrigerator, stove, oil burner, automatic washer and television set. Beyond the brick fireplace pier which divides kitchen and living room was a nineteen-foot thermopane window wall flooding the house with the low southern winter sun. 'There was mail for us already: a fuel oil bill, a note from the Committee to End Discrimination in Levittown protesting Levitt’s exclusion of Negroes, and ads offering firewood, baby sitters, and fireplace grates.

We were wrapped up in a big package deal, a feat of mass home construction that has reduced homesteading to less trouble than buying a car. William Levitt, the Levitt of Levitt and Sons, seems to do everything for you.

We had never seen a salesman, architect, contractor or blueprints. We had never seen the

impressionable banker who lent us the mortgage or the Federal Veterans Administration which guaranteed half of it. We had visited the Levitt office only three brief times, once to inspect the model house and sign an application, again to select a house from an area map and pick one of four house styles, and lastly to take possession. All the other ceremonial of buying a house was handled invisibly by the Levitt organization. We paid the war veterans’ down payment of four hundred dollars and assumed a thirty-year mortgage with carrying charges of fifty dollars per month, including amortization, interest, fire insurance, taxes and water rent.

The Levitt of Levitt and Sons is son William, a small red-faced man of forty-four who has built since the war 17,500-house Levittown, N.Y., and is nowr building 10,000-house Levittown, north of Philadelphia. He is the Ford of housing.

When Levitt started in 1947 houses were still

being built by the essential methods used at the time of Christ. Five years later Levitt’s dazzling techniques have revolutionized the home-building industry and dragged other builders into the movement.

Levitt builds planned communities, down to parks and swimming pools. He builds an engineered house that sells for from twenty-five to forty percent less than a similar speculatively built house.

Our two-story house stands on a concrete slab with the central support of a brick chimney pier crossed by a steel I-beam. On the ground floor are kitchen, living room, understairs closet, bath, two bedrooms, and a built-in chest and linen closet with sliding doors. The second floor is unfinished. A sea carpenter I know floored and walled it, so I could have a brown study upstairs. The 60 x 100 foot lot has ten inches of good topsoil, well-carved for drainage, and was completely seeded and planted as part of Levitt’s package. There is a

modern-style open carport and a garden toolshed.

Maclean’s gave detailed specifications of my eight-thousand-dollar house to a Toronto suburban builder and asked him to quote cost of building it. His low stab was eleven thousand five hundred, without Levitt’s all-electric kitchen and TV set and using some substitute materials.

In New York I^evitt finished a house every forty-five minutes. In Pennsylvania he is finishing one every half hour. They are good houses, as we can testify after a year living in one. The best materials and machines go into them, from the copper radiant-heating coils in the floor to the stainless-steel sink the Tracy Co. designed for Levitt. The thirty-odd shrubs and trees I^evitt. plants on your lot are best strains and, if they die, Levitt replaces them. For sixty days after you move in Levitt's trouble shooters will fix bugs in the house free.

Levitt’s towns have overcome much of the dreary sameness of the real-estate development. There are four variations of design, five exterior color schemes, and the houses sil in staggered positions on curving streets with many T-intersections and courts to discourage speeding drivers. Every street is paved, with storm sewers working before the houses are built. Shopping centres go up almost as fast as the houses.

My Levittown has seventy thousand inhabitants, eleven shopping centres, a civic centre, eight public swimming pools and thirty playgrounds, playing fields and parks. It has no movie theatres. Levittown is the first city of the television age: five thousand houses came with built-in TV. As the town stands it assesses at one hundred and seventy million dollars. Levittown, Pa., will be worth two hundred millions. Levitt’s radicalism will, it is estimated, profit his firm about fifteen million dollars.

Levitt holds no trade secrets. He has released blueprints and specifications of his Pennsylvania houses to homemaking magazines for distribution to anybody, and a knowing contractor could study every aspect of how he has rationalized home building. In fact, a Pennsylvania builder put up facsimiles of Levitt’s latest house before Levitt did. The enterprising ape took a long look at Levitt’s pilot model house on Long Island and went and did likewise.

Levitt’s technique is the assembly line turned inside out. Instead of the car coming past the worker the worker goes past the house. Before this occurs Levitt specialists do the planning. First Alfred Levitt, the engineering son of the firm, builds a model house. The pilot model of my eight-thousand-dollar house cost fifty thousand. The Levitts hold merchandising conferences to figure out sales hooks to put in the house, such as the thermopane wall,

Continued on page 40

and, what’s more, it’s true! /itt has worked this wonder twenty F*®* ne besides

Continued from page 11

the two-way fireplace and built-in TV. They set its price, not worrying at first about what the house will cost to build but what would be the most popular price for it. Then the Levitts usher their specialists into the pilot house and say, “Okay, boys, get the price of this one down to eight thousand.” (Ten thousand in Pennsylvania.)

The sharpshooters swarm over the house, ripping it apart to find the lowest labor and material cost commensurate with good design and quality. They looked, for instance, at walled closets and designed a better open closet, closed by sliding accordion curtains of basswood laths with magnetic catches. This closet is liked better by the housewife and costs one seventh as much as conventional storage.

Three years ago Alfred Levitt thought thermopane windows would be a good sales gimmick. These double-glass panes, vacuum-sealed in bronze, insulate as well as a wall and allow huge window areas. At the time thermopane was an expensive custom feature in luxury houses. Alfred wondered if a mass order wouldn’t bring the price down to near the twenty-five-cent-persquare-foot cost of an exterior wall. He went to Libby-Owens-Ford and asked them what sixty-five thousand lights of thermopane would cost, each 25 42

inches. The glass engineers, realizing that this meant a year’s production for one of their plants, quoted a price under twenty-five cents per square foot. Then came five thousand Levitt houses with a window wall.

Levitt’s ideas for labor saving, while distasteful to the building trade unions (he pays equivalents of union salaries but will not sign closed shop agreements), have also upset traditions in home-material manufacture.

In the paint industry, for instance, Levitt’s momentum has carried one small company into the big money with a new interior paint he worked out with the firm. The inside walls of Levitt houses are sheet-rock panels with a permanent washable oil paint, impregnated into the wall a sixteenth of an inch. The finish is an expensivelooking four-tone effect of base white and flecks of three shades of bluegreen. To get this job from conventional house painters would require two coats of white, followed by three applications of hand-sponged flecks by highly skilled men. Levitt puts the whole works on in one high-pressure spray. His paint consists of the white base in which are floated the color specks, each coated with an emulsion to prevent mixing. When the machinegun sprayer blasts this liquid on a wall the emulsions burst, leaving an even pattern of flecks. Once Levitt ceases to require the entire production capacity of the paint firm this ingenious paint will be available to all.

The outside walls of my house are covered with overlapping asbestos shingles. For the Pennsylvania town Levitt has figured out how to cut the cost of hand-shingling to one eighth. With the Johns - Manville Co. the Levitts designed a huge striated shingle, eight feet by thirty-two inches. It has eight precut nail holes through which the worker drives self-spreading nails. The slabs are scored with vertical grooves (or striations) and give the house a mellow textured look. When Levitt lets Johns-Manville up for a minute other contractors will be able to buy striated slabs.

Levitt makes dramatic decisions when materials go into short supply.

Early in the game lumber got tough. Levitt bought a big California mill. He sold it after lumber production picked up. One season cement disappeared. Levitt chartered a freighter and brought a shipload of cement from Germany.

All the lumber for one Levittown house is loaded in one truck in precut packages. The trucks are combatloaded; that is, the top package is the first wood needed and the other bundles uncover in order of use. The truck driver does not have a helper. He dumps the lumber with a pulley in two minutes. Trucks move at fifty miles an hour on the construction site, for Levitt will not raise a stick until his streets are hard-paved. The mud wallows that trap other developers have no place in his timetable. He extends work throughout cold weather. Levitt’s cement is mixed with antifreeze liquid instead of water so that foundations go down and set predictably in any weather.

Levitt’s first radical move was to sell before building, instead of building and speculating afterward, which requires cumbersome sales forces, advertising, and often rows of unoccupied deteriorating houses if you haven’t caught buyers. Levitt’s decision was dictated by his first venture of one thousand rental houses in Long Island in 1947, the nucleus of Levittown. So many applicants stormed his office that he said, “Okay, we’ll build more houses for the guys on the end of the line.” The decision carried his organization into ever-increasing annual programs, expanding Levittown. After sixty-five hundred rental houses he huilt houses for sale only. As the mass experience broadened so did planning and technique.

Levittown, Pa., begins afresh and planned, after the Topsy growth of Levittown, N.Y. In three years Levitt will build the fifteenth city of the second state of the union on five thousand acres of farmland. The one hundred and fifty houses and barns on the site have been bulldozed. Levitt’s man in charge of demolition fulfilled a bad boy’s dream of burning a house. He invited friends to his legal arson party.

Dug Potatoes, Planted People

Applications for Pennsylvania houses opened ten days before Christmas 1951. Fifty thousand people arrived. Those near the counter bought two million dollars’ worth of houses while those back in the crush who had reached up to receive applications couldn’t get their arms down. Levitt’s sales chief spent two days on a mike imploring the customers to please go away. The sales ratio indicates that all houses will be sold before the first one is occupied.

The Pennsylvania houses are the Levittowner, a $10,000 home for defense workers, and the Country Clubber, a $16,500 executive stash. The executive is getting an unbelievable bargain. It has been estimated his mansion might cost up to $35,000 if all the components were not interchangeable precut items of the workers’ houses.

In Long Island Levitt bought suburban truck gardens, dug up the potatoes and planted people. In Pennsylvania he builds in a strictly rural area. He could not make a town without utilities. Usually a new development which overloads existing water and power is supplied by the native governments by a three-and-a-half percent bond issue for expansion. In Pennsylvania there were no existing utilities. The future home owners will inherit no bonded indebtedness, because Levitt is spending ten million dollars to build water and power plants.

Levitt’s bold financial manipulations last year by-produced a million dollars for a Philadelphia adult educational institution known as The Junto, which was founded by Benjamin Franklin two centuries ago. Last year Levitt sold four thousand and twenty-eight of his rental houses to The Junto and was retained as rent broker. The Junto undertook to pay thirty-two million dollars for the hunk of Levittown and gave a borrowed one and a half million dollars as down payment. This loan was secured by The Junto directors from Philadelphia bankers for two hundred dollars and two signatures. After one year The Junto bought a one-million-dollar office building in Philadelphia out of Levittown income.

Levittown, N.Y., is a spatterwork on the map of Long Island, Walt Whitman’s “fish-shaped Paumanok.” It lies where the eye of the fish would be, fifty minutes from Manhattan. The eye is blind. Levittown is not a political entity. No fewer than twentysix separate civic and service authorities prevail. There are three post offices, five town governments, three fire districts, four school boards, five water authorities, three railheads for commuters, two city-bound parkways, and four taxpayers’ associations. The town plopped itself down into the laps of native jurisdictions on all sides. They have become baby sitters for our squalling brat town.

Levittown is learning to walk, however. After loud manifestations of democracy in our hundred clubs and organizations we will be ourself pretty soon. Curiously enough the chief obstacle we will have to deal with is Levitt and Sons. Levittown is a paternalistic town. The Levitts own the big newspaper and control the town hall. Abraham Levitt, the father of whizbang William and engineer Alfred, is the reeve of our town, busy with parks and beautification. If you don’t mow your lawn the patriarch threatens to mow it and bill you for it. This is probably illegal persuasion, but the old man wants the place kept neat. He writes a weekly gardening column in his house organ, the Tribune, keeping us on our toes and pushing the old lawn mower.

Paternalism is not unmixed with Levitt commercial considerations. In addition to the millions of profit in selling houses the Levitts have a huge continuing income from renting shopping centres. Property values must be kept up.

This homily of the real-estate owner governs Levitt’s stubborn policy against Negroes. Levittown is the largest single

North American community without a Negro population. To turn away Negroes Levitt insists on seeing the applicant in person, and he likes you to bring your spouse in case he or she might not be of Levitt’s pigmentation.

For three years the Committee to End Discrimination in Levittown has fought Levitt’s Jim Crow rule on the grounds that colored Americans have the natural right to live here and. besides, the mothers on the committee would like their kids to play with all hues of children. The committee recently stopped Levitt from evicting a white family in a rental house, the Adolph Rosses, who had offended his code by having Negro kids play with theirs.

Levittown’s streets were probably christened by a drunk with a dictionary. We have Bobolink Lane, Brittle Lane and Cane Lane. The addled author also stuck us with lanes named Celestial, Disc, Downhill, Dwarf, Empty, Swing, Swirl, Tinder, Tiptop and Tusk.

Although our exteriors are individual the insides of our houses are the same. When calling on a neighbor 1 have to stop myself from flipping on his light switch or reconnoitring his refrigerator. There are not many instances of reconnoitring one’s neighbor’s wife: our crime and trouble rate is low. We are too house-crazy to think of had stuff. Well, all right, the cops did find five young women practicing the world’s oldest profession in one of our houses, but we would rather tell you about our neighbors, Captain Alvin Dark of the N.Y. Giants, and Dodger Cal Abrams, who mans a local gas-station pump out of ball season.

Our houses are backwards. From the street you enter the kitchen and the window wall opens on the garden. Behind the houses very few fences have been put up—and they with apologies that toddlers have to be kept in or dogs kept out of tulips. Our solarium windows survey unbroken village greens, as sweetly unmodern as an Elizabethan common. Property lines are vague. On our common we hit croquet balls, build patios, cook on outdoor fireplaces and moot gardening lore. We are all escaped from the cells of the city and believe it is marvelous to stroll two doors down and expertize a neighbor’s tomatoes. Week ends ring with hammers as pools of neighbors help a man enclose his carport, like an old-time barn-raising.

New homesteaders go house-crazy here. Extraordinary waves of fads follow the first guy to do them. Somebody strings rag pennants around his newly seeded lawn, presumably to baffle starlings, and the next day the block is aflutter with torn bedsheets. The first salesman to call sells metal housemarkers with your name and cutout pictures of galleons, prairie schooners and scotties. If your monicker is Smith the sign can’t read, “John Smith.” It has to say, “The Smiths,” or “The Smiths, John, Jane, Joan, Jeff and Jingles.” The escutcheon must testify that the marriage is going to last as long as the property values do.

Across the street we drew a neighbor whose name we never learned. We called him Showboat. The day he arrived he installed on his lawn a many-colored cast-iron zoo, starring a cast-iron boy fishing in a bird bath, attended by flamingoes, ducks, and elves. Trucks kept arriving with shrubs which Showboat planted on his seared and dying lawn. Anon, we figured Showboat. He had bought the house on speculation and was baiting it artistically for a buyer. The buyer was Toronto-born Jeff Smith, an electrical engineer, who promptly sunk Showboat’s shooting gallery in Long Island Sound and replaced the taxidermy with four live kids, very easy on the eye. it