The end of WWII was the start of the Philadelphia suburb – Levittown.
“Levittown has significance beyond the local area. It is of interest nationally and internationally because it is the archetype of modern suburbia and as such gets attention from the political, academic and media communities,” said Rich Wagner, Levittown historian and director of the Levittown Museum.
After the war, millions of veterans were coming back to the states ready to put to use their government issued GI Bills and start a picture-perfect family.
There were two problems: housing was tight and expensive.
The U.S. economy was recuperating from the dark decade of the Great Depression (1929-39). WWII broke out in 1939 with Germany’s notorious dictator Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in September. The U.S. entered in 1941, after the bombing the US Naval base at Pearl Harbor by Japanese air forces that year without warning; the war ended 1945.
Savvy businessmen knew the war would eventually be over and the service personnel would have the financial backing of the GI Bill of Rights, which provided them a series of benefits, including low-interest mortgages.
Enter William Levitt. And say good-bye to hundreds of acre of farmland.
Levitt, then owner of the family New York-based developing company Levitt and Sons, built thousands of affordable cookie cutter-home communities in Hempstead, N.Y. (1947-1951); Bucks County (1951-1957); and Willingboro, N.J. (1958-1962). He named them all Levittown.
Levitt revolutionized the housing industry using his knowledge and techniques that he learned during WWII while serving as a Seabee in the Navy’s Construction Battalion, which constructed anything from air strips to bridges for the military, said Wagner, runs www.levittowners.com, a website dedicated to the community’s history.
This year, the Pennsylvania Levittown celebrates its 60thanniversary, a milestone to the community that was built in five years – from 1952 to 1957 – for the middle class, fueled by the steel industry, and whose goal was to live the American Dream without war.
Levittowners started moving into their newly built homes in June 1962. Many Philadelphians left behind their row homes and family tradition of city life to move into the new all American town, Levittown.
In Bucks County, the single-family-home-with-a-yard development has homes in Tullytown Borough, Bristol, Falls and Middletown townships, some still occupied by families that moved in directly after WWII.
And in those municipalities, Levittown is broken into 42 sections with names such as Snowball Gates in Middletown, Pinewood in Falls, Indian Creek in Bristol, and Stonybrook in Tullytown.
Albert DiGiovanni is one of the oldest residents in Stonybrook. He bought the 22ndhome out of 17,311 built in the housing development, which DiGiovanni said he helped construct.
“I worked on the first house to the last house,” said the 93-year-old Tullytown resident.
The daily goal was to build 40 houses a day, with 26 contractors per house working around the clock seven days a week, said DiGiovanni, adding that his job at 32 years old was to do anything that needed to be done.
For DiGiovanni, Levitt was “a genius” of a developer turning farmland to a booming community in five years.
Levitt was the Henry Ford of home building, Wagner said.
He bought forests and sawmills all across the country, set up local manufacturing factories to precut and prefabricate the lumber and piping. So when material arrived at construction sites, contractors assembled the homes without the hassle of measuring or cutting, he said.
Wagner added that Levitt pioneered the standard 4-by-8 plywood roof, making it faster for contractors to built the track homes. He created infrastructure in the development.
“That’s how he was able to sell them so cheap,” he said.
With the homes came a boost of developments that included strategically located parks, schools and churches. Levitt didn’t stop at homes; he knew the new residents would need shops, so he built strip malls.
Even before the homes were built, there were lines of people waiting to purchase their plot of land. Levitt would not sell to blacks, though.
And once homes were built, many came with some features, including curtains, patio furniture, appliances, trash cans and well-manicured lawns.
Buyers had a few cookie-cutter options.
In 1951, the housing company started with the Rancher, which was the smallest with two-bedrooms, one bath and an unfinished attic for the selling price of $8,990. For veterans and their families received special deals such as zero down payment and $57 per month, Wagner said.
Later, that type of home was upgraded to a Big Rancher, which included four-bedrooms, two baths and a finished attic for $10,500.
Also in 1951, the Levittowner was being sold for $10,990 for three-bedrooms and one bath. Veterans were paying $67 per month for their mortgages.
Then, in 1954, Levitt and Sons started selling the Jubilee at $10,990 for four bedrooms and two baths. The monthly payments were $70.
Also available that year was the Country Clubber, the largest and most expensive of all Levittown homes in Bucks County. For $16,900, buyers got five bedrooms and two-and-half baths. The down payment for veterans was $1,000 and $99 per month.
These were only built in Middletown in the sections of Snowball Gate, Forsythia Gate, Snowball Gate, Red Rose Gatewhich are considered the Beverly Hills of Levittown. The developing company initially wanted to build the Country Clubers in Bristol, however, the local government did not approve them. Middletown welcomed the bigger homes.
Then, in 1956, the company put out the Pennsylvanian, which ran for $14,500 for four-bedrooms and two baths. Veterans put down $1,100 and paid $96 a month.
These were steals, Wagner said, adding that such deals will never be again.
“It was a different economy back then,” he said. “Banks were a service; they didn’t drive the economy like they do now.”
The Levittowns weren’t only the talk of the nation, but internationally they received much attention.
The BBC featured the Levittowns because they were considered revolutionary and modern suburbia. For the 60thanniversary, the British news organization published a series of features of the Levittowns.
Throughout the years, the communities have been featured in different publications, including in the June 2007 edition of Old House Journal, which spotlighted neighborhoods in a five-page spread that covered from their history to their designs.