William Jaird Levitt (February 11, 1907 – January 28, 1994) was an American real-estate developer. In his position as president of Levitt & Sons, he is widely credited as the father of modern American suburbia and was among Time Magazine's: 100 Most Influential People of the 20th century.
Levitt was born in 1907 to a Jewish family. His generation was the second since immigrating from Russia and Austria; the grandfather who immigrated to the United States had been a rabbi from eastern Europe. Levitt grew up in Brooklyn, New York. His father was Abraham Levitt, a real estate attorney and part-time investor; his mother was Pauline Biederman. A younger brother, Alfred, was born when William was 5 years old. William received a public school education at Public School 44 and Boys High School. He then attended New York University for three years.
Levitt married Rhoda Kirshner in November 1929. Their son William Junior was born in 1933. His second son, James was born in 1944. The couple divorced in 1959, and Levitt married his secretary and long-time lover, Alice Kenny. Ten years later in 1969, Levitt divorced her and married a French art dealer, Simone Korchin.
Levitt & Sons
In 1929, his father, Abraham Levitt, founded a real-estate development company called Levitt & Sons. Levitt & Sons built mostly upscale housing on and around Long Island, New York in the 1930s. William Levitt served as company president, overseeing all aspects of the company except for the designs of the homes they built, which fell to William's brother Alfred.
William Levitt 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. The Levitts sold 600 of these upper middle class homes, part of the Strathmore project, in four years, even though it was during the Great Depression.In November 1929, William Levitt married Rhoda Kirshner. The couple had a son, William Jr., in 1933. Levitt earned a reputation as the person to see for high-end, custom homes on Long Island, New York's North Shore, called the Gold Coast. The company built 200 homes in the North Strathmore development in Manhasset, which 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.
Post World War II
During World War II, Levitt served in the Navy as a lieutenant in the Seabees. After returning from the war, he saw a need for affordable housing for returning veterans. America's post-war prosperity and baby boom had created a crisis of affordable housing.
Levitt & Sons built their first huge housing development near Hempstead, Long Island and named it Levittown. Residents started moving into Levittown, New York in 1947. Levitt's innovation in creating this planned community was to build the houses in the manner of an assembly line, where specialized workers with a specific task moved from house to house as they were constructed en masse. While William Levitt was in Hawaii, his father took over as company president and planned 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 broke ground on the $50 million development, Levittown, which ultimately included 17,000 homes on 7.3 square miles of land. Alfred Levitt 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.
Levitt revolutionized the home construction industry by sifting 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, a price that still allowed a profit of about $1,000. (In the late 1990s they 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, Levitt sold 1,400 homes. They could be bought for a $58 downpayment, and included a free washing machine and 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 was the cover story in TIME Magazine for July 3, 1950, with the tag line "For Sale: a new way of life."
At the helm of Levitt & Sons, Levitt went on to plan and build other communities on the East Coast in the 1950s and 1960s. Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which saw its first residents in 1952, in a community that ultimately numbered more than 17,000 homes. Willingboro, New Jersey, was originally built as a Levittown, and bears several Levittown-specific street names such as Levitt Parkway. During the late 1950s, Levitt and Sons developed the community known as "Belair at Bowie," in Bowie, Maryland. In the early 1960s, the company built a 5,000-house community in north central New Jersey called Strathmore-at-Matawan.
Under his leadership, Levitt & Sons developed properties beyond the US mainland. Levittown, Puerto Rico, built in the 1960s, was one of Levitt's projects. Levitt built near Paris at Lésigny in Seine-et-Marne, and at Mennecy in Essonne, France.
Levitt was awarded the Frank P. Brown Medal in 1965.
By the late 1960s, William had become one of the richest men in America, with a fortune estimated in excess of $100 million. He lived in a lavish 30-room mansion on his "La Coline" estate in Mill Neck, New York, and spent much of his time on his 237-foot yacht, La Belle Simone, named after his third wife. After he had built over 140,000 houses around the world, Levitt sold the company to the International Telephone & Telegraph Corp. for $92 million in July 1967. At the age of 60, he became incredibly wealthy, getting $62 million in the form of ITT stock. ITT changed the name of its new subsidiary to Levitt Corp. and Levitt agreed not to build in the United States for ten years. He entered the agreement thinking he would play a role in ITT affairs, but executives felt Levitt was too old to take on more responsibility.
Later years and death
Levitt was barred from home building in the United States by the terms of the ITT sale. Even after that term expired, Levitt was unable to repeat his successes with Levitt & Sons. He established a series of companies and joint ventures through the 1970s and 1980s which failed. He was also accused of misappropriation of funds. Despite his financial problems in his later years, William Levitt, along with his father and brother, revolutionized the housing industry. The mass-market construction methods they helped to make industry standards enabled millions of middle- and working-class Americans to own their own homes, and reshaped the face of the nation. Levitt died in Manhasset, New York, on January 28, 1994, at the age of 87.
William Levitt came to symbolize the new suburban growth with his use of mass-production techniques to construct large developments of houses, eponymously named Levittowns, selling for under $10,000. Many other relatively inexpensive suburban developments soon appeared throughout the country. While he did not invent the building of communities of affordable single-family homes within driving distance of major areas of employment, his innovations in providing affordable housing popularized this type of planned community in the years following World War II.
His nicknames included "The King Of Suburbia"  and "Inventor of the Suburb." At his height, when he was building one suburban house every 16 minutes, Levitt compared his successes to those of Henry Ford's automobile assembly line. Time Magazine recognized Levitt as one of the "100 Most Important People of the 20th Century" in 1998.
While Levitt refused to sell homes in some of his developments to blacks. However, he actively advocated for the U. S. Government to take steps to end racial discrimination in housing.
He once offered to build a separate development for blacks, but he would not integrate white developments, believing that integration would cause him to lose 90 to 95 percent of his white customers. Levitt defended his policy by saying, "We can solve a housing problem or we can try to solve a racial problem. But we can't do both."
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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).
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