The Six Thousand Houses That Levitt Built, 1948

From Harper's. 197:1180 (1948). 79-83.

      The largest private builder of houses in the Eastern United States is the firm of Levitt & Sons, of Manhasset, Long Island, whose president--William J. Levitt--is to the housing industry somewhat as Robert R. Young first was to the railroads. Both men have been successful, both have called attention to the shortcomings of their professions, and both have preached reform, rationalization, and respect for the public. . . .

      Before the war dotted defense areas with large developments made up of many small houses, most private housebuilders put up less than two thousand houses a year. Since the war, Levitt & Sons have built over six thousand. The figure is as of the beginning of this month; in April they were finishing 60 houses a week; in may, 100 a week; and in July, 150 a week.

      Levitt--Bill Levitt refers to the firm in the third person singular--is now at work on a 1,400-acre, 6,000-house project called "Levittown," near Hicksville, Long Island, where 4 1/2-room "bungalows" are rented, to veterans only, for 65 dollars a month. Each house comes complete with radiant-heating, General Electric range and refrigerator, and venetian blinds. The grounds will be landscaped, all utilities will be connected, and there will be concrete roads. Levittown will be zoned as a park district, and Levitt will build one swimming pool for each thousand houses--also three shopping centers (with nearly a hundred retail units), five schools (built by county on public contract), and six churches (plots donated by Levitt & Sons). Levittown will be finished by the end of this year. "Anyone who comes to us now," Bill Levitt said last April, "will have a house in October."

      As soon as one of the first 1,800 veterans to rent a house in Levittown has been there a year, he is given an option by Levitt to buy the house for $7, 990; if he does not buy, Levitt will rent for one year more. "I think they'll buy alright," he has said with a pride anyone might reasonably take in watching well--made plans come to fruition. The veterans will be backed by GI loan and will thus require no cash, they will get back a $100 deposit from Levitt, and the carrying charges on the loan will be less than the rent they are now paying--a combination difficult to resist. . . .The 1947 price on the basic small Levitt House was $7,500. . . .Costs have risen since then and comparisons on the basis of profit per house are deceptive (according to Bill Levitt, they are no longer used in the firm), but it was estimated in 1947 that he undersold his nearest competitor by $1,500 and still made $1,000 profit on each house. . . .

      Bill Levitt is becoming a kind of bellwether of the building trades, and he believes that he is setting patterns which the others must eventually adopt. The housing industry, if it can properly be called an industry, has traditionally been based on limited construction by small contractors, consumer financing, and craft unions. Levitt & Sons are substituting mass construction by a single company, production financing, and either industrial unions or no unions at all. . . .

      The Levitt small house is a cultural index, a mean between what the money will buy and what people are willing to pay for. The houses might look quite attractive if there weren't so incredibly many of them. Levittown is about ten miles away from the sea on the Long Island flats. From the Wantagh Parkway, the town stretches away to the east as far as the eye can see, house after identical house, a horizon broken only by telegraph poles. The exterior colors are varied and good (among them a strong, dark red), and the houses, which might have been in even lines, are at least slightly staggered. Each house is built on a concrete slab (no cellar) into which copper pipes for radiant heating have been embedded. The floors are of asphalt tile and the walls of composition rock-board ( the rooms are designed in multiples of four feet, the standard width of the composition panels). A stairway leads to an unfinished attic; under one side is a scroll trimmed alcove for the Bendix [washing machine]; under the other, bookshelves for the living room. The focal point is the kitchen, at the front of the house to the right of the door, which is full of cabinets and designed with a sharp eye on the magazine-reading, ruffled-chintz housewife.

      "A dream house," Levitt wrote for a GE ad, "is a house the buyer and his family will want to live in a long time. . .an electric kitchen-laundry is the one big item that gives the homeowner all the advantages and conveniences that make his home truly livable." To include a Bendix washer in the sales price may seem frivolous and extravagant, but it is worth every bit of the cost in sales appeal and publicity. "And it will sell faster," Levitt added. His house is the Model-T equivalent of the rose-covered cottage-or Cape Coddage, as some one has called it. It is meant to look like the Little Home of One's Own that was a subsidiary myth of the American Dream long before Charlie Chaplin put it into "Modern Times." . . .

      A house that goes up in Levittown will have been handled by Levitt & Sons from the start to finish. When Bill Levitt uses a favorite phrase, "vertical organization," he is talking about a principle he has applied as rigorously as the housing business will allow. His lumber, for example comes from the Grizzly Park Lumber Company, of Blue Lake, California, which he owns. All of his appliances (a Bendix, say, or a GE refrigerator) are purchased from the North Shore Supply Company, which he owns. He doesn't buy nails and concrete blocks; he makes them himself. Like most builders, he has many contractors working for him (the number varies in the neighborhood of fifty), but here also the vertical principle is retained. All of his contractors work for him and for no one else, and most of them were put in business by Levitt.

      The advantages of this top-to-bottom control are considerable. The timber can be cut at the mill in California to the exact size at which it will finally be used in the house. This means not only a saving on freight and handling (the wood can bypass the Levitt factory at Roslyn, Long Island, and go directly to the site), but also an initial cost saving of 30 per cent--the mark-up that Levitt and the consumer, would be paying if he didn't own his source of basic material.

      The same applies to a Bendix or GE range. The traditional echelons through which an appliance must pass are from manufacturer to distributor to wholesaler to builder, each adding an additional mark-up as it goes. Levitt, by owning his wholesaler, absorbs at least one of the mark-ups and continues to moan with pain about the others. He buys appliances as a rule, by the carload lot, and they proceed direct from the factory to his railroad siding at Roslyn. He cannot understand why several people who never see the merchandise should be paid merely for handling the bills. . . .

      The actual building techniques used by Levitt, of course, are not those of which a carpenter's guild would be likely to approve. He uses time and labor-saving machinery whenever possible, even when such use (as paint sprayers) is specifically forbidden by the union. Beginning with a trenching machine, through transit-mix trucks to haul concrete, to an automatic trowler that smoothes the foundation-slab, Levitt takes advantage of whatever economies mechanization can give him. The site of the houses becomes one vast assembly line, with trucks dropping off at each house the exact materials needed by the crew then moving up. Some parts--plumbing, staircases, window frames, cabinets--are actually prefabricated in the factory at Roslyn and brought to the house ready to install. The process might be called one of semi-prefabrication, in which a great deal of building is actually done on the site, but none that is unnecessary or that could be better done elsewhere--a lot of hammering, as Bill Levitt says, but very little sawing.



Houghton Mifflin Company