Cookie-cutter community turns 60
The mass-produced homes of Levittown, N. Y., made up the nation’s first suburb.
By Louise Bolger
sun staff writer
Bet you don’t know what’s considered the first American suburb. I didn’t and I grew up in the town next door, Levittown, Long Island, N. Y. I also didn’t know that Levittown turns 60 this month, marking a significant milestone for a community that may have been the first to fulfill the American dream of homeownership for the average working family.
In October of 1947, William Levitt opened the first of what eventually would become over 17,000 Cape Cod and ranch houses constructed on the potato fields 40 miles east of New York City. Like all visionaries, he knew that when the 16 million G.I.’s started coming back after World War II, the housing shortage would be monumental. What he carved out of those potato fields would not just be a roof over their heads, but would also create a community and lifestyle never before seen in this country.
The cookie-cutter houses he built on 60 x 100 foot lots were bare bones shelter by today’s standards. There were no basements, primarily because excavating for a foundation would slow down production, and 800 square feet of living space. Each house had a living room, kitchen, two bedrooms, one bathroom and an unfinished attic. The original Cape Cod sold for under $7,000 and the ranch for about $1,000 more. The kitchens had steel kitchen cabinets, washers, refrigerators and an electric range.
In addition, Levitt constructed village greens that featured grocery stores, pharmacies and other shops within walking distance for the stay-at-home wives of the day. He also created one of my fondest childhood memories, community swimming pools. Since my best friend’s grandparents lived in Levittown, swimming in one of the Levittown pools was the highlight of many summers.
Today, the original Levittown home is so rare that the Smithsonian Institute can’t even get their hands on one. The tiny houses, where so many returning veterans raised families, have been bumped up and out and transformed becoming unrecognizable to their original owners. Some are even borderline McMansions with prices to match. You would be hard pressed to find a house in Levittown for less than $400,000 in today’s market.
Levittown is an important part of the history of housing in America. As it turns out it was an important part of my personal history too, not to mention Billy Joel and Bill O’Reilly, who both grew up on Long Island in a Levitt house. Levittown’s success made it the prototype for other communities nationwide, and although some people may think it represented ticky-tacky, what it really represented was a more community minded and innocent American way of life. Happy birthday Levittown. You were one of a kind.