Levitt & Sons

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Levitt & Sons was a real estate development company founded by Abraham Levitt and later managed by his son William Levitt. The company is most famous for having built the town of Levittown, New York. The company's designs and building practices totally revolutionized the entire Home Building Industry and altered America's landscape with massive suburban communities.

Levitt & Sons had a profound effect on America's post-World War II economy,[not verified in body] and William Levitt was named one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.[1] Historian Kenneth T. Jackson wrote of Levitt & Sons, "The family that had the greatest impact on postwar housing in the United States was Abraham Levitt and his sons, William and Alfred, who ultimately built more than 140,000 houses and turned a cottage industry into a major manufacturing process,"[2]

Founding and early years[edit]

Abraham Levitt founded a real-estate development company near the start of the Great Depression.[3][4] His son William became company president at the age of 22, handling the advertising, sales, and financing. Alfred Levitt, still a teenager, became vice president of design and drafted plans for the first Levitt house, a six bedroom, two bathroom Tudor style home that sold for over $14,000 in 1929 (roughly $193,000 today). The Levitts sold 600 of these upper middle class homes, part of the Strathmore project, in four years during the Great Depression.[5]

William earned a reputation as the person to see for high-end, custom homes on Long Island's North Shore, called the Gold Coast. Prior to World War II, Levitt & Sons built mostly upscale housing on and around Long Island, New York. During the 1930s, they built the North Strathmore community at Manhasset, New York, on the former Onderdonk farm.[6] The North Stratford homes sold for $9,100 to $18,500. The Levitts built another 1,200 homes in Manhasset, Great Neck, and Westchester County. Radio stars, prominent journalists, surgeons, business people, and lawyers bought the upscale Levitt houses. Selling these homes made the Levitt family rich.[7]

Construction of Levittown, New York[edit]

After World War II, America's post-war prosperity and baby boom had created a crisis of affordable housing,[8] especially for returning veterans. Levitt & Sons chose an area known as Island Trees near Hempstead, Long Island, as the site for a huge building project for housing these veterans. The company named it Levittown. Levitt's innovation in creating this planned community was to build the houses in the manner of an assembly line.[1] In normal assembly lines, the workers stay stationary and the product moves down the line; in Levitt's homebuilding assembly line, the product—the houses—stayed in place and specialized workers moved from house to house. During the project, Levitt and Sons emphasized speed, efficiency, and cost-effective construction; these methods led to a production rate of 30 houses a day by July 1948.[9]

The company developed a plan to build a community of 6,000 low-priced homes in Nassau County, much larger than any other U.S. development. The company bought 1,000 acres of potato farms on Long Island. On July 1, 1947, Levitt & Sons broke ground on the $50 million ($530 million today) development of Levittown, which ultimately included 17,000 homes on 7.3 square miles of land. Alfred created the mass production techniques and designed the homes and the layout of the development, with its curving streets. Abraham directed the landscaping, whose focus was two trees to each front yard, all planted exactly the same distance apart. William was the financier and promoter, who persuaded lawmakers to rewrite the laws that made Levittown possible. The houses, which were in the Cape Cod and ranch house styles, sat on a seventh-of-an-acre lot. They had 750 square feet with two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen, an unfinished second floor and no garage.

To mass produce the houses, the company broke the construction process down into 27 operations. Specialized teams repeated each operation at each building site. Twenty acres formed an assembly point, where cement was mixed and lumber cut. Trucks delivered parts and material to homesites placed 60 feet apart. Then carpenters, tilers, painters and roofers arrived in sequence. One team used white paint, another red. One worker's only duty was to bolt washing machines to floors. The Levitts built up to 180 houses a week when most builders were constructing four or five homes a year.

William sifted through outdated building codes and union rules and using new technologies to get quality building jobs completed quickly and cheaply. To save money on lumber, the Levitts bought forests and built a sawmill in Oregon. They purchased appliances directly from the manufacturer, cutting out the middleman. They even made their own nails.

The mass production methods kept costs so low that in the first years the houses sold for $7,990 (about $79,500 today), a price that still allowed a profit of about $1,000. (By the late 1990s, these houses sold for about $155,000.) When the Levitt homes went on the market in March 1949, eager buyers lined up to purchase them. On the first day, the Levitts sold 1,400 homes. They could be bought for a $58 down payment, and included a free washing machine and a free television. The success of Levittown depended on huge government assistance. The Federal Housing Administration guaranteed the loans that banks made to builders. The Veterans Administration provided buyers with low-interest mortgages to purchase those houses, thus the risk to the lenders was small.

Levitt & Sons was the cover story in TIME Magazine for July 3, 1950. William was pictured on the cover, with the tag line "For Sale: a new way of life."[10]

Other Levittown projects[edit]

The Levitts went on to plan and build another community of more than 17,000 homes in Levittown, Pennsylvania, which saw its first residents in 1952. Willingboro, New Jersey, was built as a Levittown in 1958, and bears several Levittown-specific street names such as Levitt Parkway.

Discord in the Levitt family caused a split in 1954. Alfred left the company, and William took full control of Levitt & Sons.[5] During the late 1950s, Levitt and Sons developed the community known as "Belair at Bowie," in Bowie, Maryland. In 1957 they acquired the historic Belair Mansion and estate, home of Maryland's colonial Governor Samuel Ogle and his Belair Stables.[11] In 1959 the community was annexed by Bowie.

The company went public in 1960.[5] Through the 1960s, the Levitts constructed houses in six Eastern states.[12]

In 1961, the company started development in Aberdeen, New Jersey (formerly Matawan Township), known as "Strathmore at Matawan."[13][12] the Strathmore name had originally been used by Levitt & Sons in its upper middle class developments on Long Island in the 1930s. Levittown, Puerto Rico, built in the 1960s, was a Levitt project.[14] In 1966, Levitt & Sons built a development in Somerset, New Jersey, and in 1966–72, it built another development in Greenbriar, Virginia.[12]

Levitt & Sons even went international. The company built a large development near Paris at Lésigny in Seine-et-Marne, and at Mennecy in Essonne, France.[14] By the late 1960s, Levitt & Sons had built more than 140,000 houses.[5]

Levitt under ITT[edit]

Levitt & Sons was sold to ITT in 1964 for a reported $90 million ($640 million today).[5] The company continued to build housing developments as an ITT subsidiary, under a variety of names that usually included "Levitt".[12] Development in Florida started two years later.

In the United States, Levitt houses were built in the states of Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington, as well as in Puerto Rico.[12] Around the world, Levitt houses were built in Canada, France, and Spain.[12]

Later years[edit]

Starrett Housing Corporation purchased ITT's Levitt subsidiary in 1979.[12] Houses continued to be built in Florida, Illinois, New York, and Virginia.[12] A completely separate company called Levitt Homes Corp. operated in Puerto Rico during the 1980s.[12]

Levitt was sold to BankAtlantic Corp. in 1999.[12] In 2003, Levitt was established as independent entity from BankAtlantic.[12]

Levitt and Sons were restricted to building in Florida alone by the 2000s. Levitt filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in late 2007 as a result of the housing crash.[15] The parent company was renamed in 2008 to Woodbridge Holdings Corporation, which shortly ceased trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Lacayo, Richard (December 7, 1998). "Suburban Legend WILLIAM LEVITT". TIME. 
  2. ^ "Levittown - History and Overview of Levittown". Geography.about.com. 2013-07-14. Retrieved 2013-07-21. 
  3. ^ Levittown Historical Society
  4. ^ Alexander Garvin, American Cities: what works, what doesn't (The McGraw Hill Companies, 2002), 397.
  5. ^ a b c d e "William Levitt". Answers.com. Retrieved 2013-07-21. 
  6. ^ Austin N. O'Brien (February 1980). "National Register of Historic Places Registration: Horatio Gates Onderdonk House". New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Retrieved 2010-10-30. 
  7. ^ http://biography.yourdictionary.com/william-levitt
  8. ^ Blackwell, Jon. "1951: American dream houses, all in a row". The Trentonian. 
  9. ^ Jackson, Kenneth T. (1985). "The Baby Boom and the Age of the Subdivision" (PDF). Retrieved January 12, 2009. 
  10. ^ "HOUSE BUILDER LEVITT, For Sale: a new way of life". TIME. July 3, 1950. 
  11. ^ Baltz, Shirley Vlasak (1984). A Chronicle of Belair. Bowie, Maryland: Bowie Heritage Committee. pp. 84–88. LCCN 85165028. 
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Levitt Communities". LevittownBeyond.com. Retrieved 3 December 2014. 
  13. ^ Sylvester, Kevin (2004). "Strathmore at Matawan". LevittownBeyond.com. Retrieved 3 December 2014. 
  14. ^ a b "France: A Lesson from Levitt". Time (magazine). 1965-12-10. Retrieved 2011-01-11. New European housing often looks elegant from the outside, but much of it is backward in kitchen equipment, bathroom layout, floor plans, heating, plumbing and lighting—the innards that make the shell truly livable. The gap yawns nowhere wider than in France, where 51 years of rent control have helped create a gargantuan housing shortage. Thus it is not surprising that the French have enthusiastically greeted an invasion by Long Island's William J. Levitt, the U.S.'s biggest homebuilder (fiscal 1965 sales: $60 million). More than 60,000 Frenchmen have poured out of Paris to gape at Levitt's recently opened American-style subdivision in suburban Le Mesnil-Saint-Denis (pop. 2,000). 
  15. ^ Brinkmann, Paul (July 18, 2011). "Levitt & Sons liquidation hits 75 percent return mark". South Florida Business Journal.