William Levitt (1907 – 1994)

Father of Suburbia

Born in 1907 in Brooklyn, New York, William Levitt would go on to reshape not just the geography but the very concept of the American Dream. In the early 20th century, homeownership was still largely an aspiration reserved for the affluent. The average American worker couldn’t fathom the idea of owning a backyard. They were city dwellers, cramped in apartments, always gazing at the distant green landscapes of the wealthy. William Levitt looked at this landscape and saw a future that others didn’t—a future where every family could own a piece of the American dream.

William Levitt served in the Navy during World War II, serving as a lieutenant in the Seabees, the construction arm of the service. Upon his return, like many veterans, Levitt was restless, driven, and armed with skills and discipline that come from years of military service. However, he had something that set him apart: a vision for mass housing, learned from his father’s real-estate development company, Levitt & Sons, (with his father Abraham and brother Alfred) which built high end housing on Long Island, and magnified by the war’s demonstrated need for quick, efficient construction.

You might say that William Levitt, did for housing what Henry Ford did for cars… he democratized it, making that which was formerly reserved largely for the rich available to the middle class – but alas, not to blacks, as Levitt communities included covenants that excluded blacks and other minorities until forced by the courts to abandon them. Like Ford, Levitt achieved his success by bringing the assembly line process to home construction. Yes, just like cars in a factory, Levitt could produce houses in a production line fashion – although not actually in a factory. Utilizing pre-cut lumber and nails and standardized designs, broke down the building of a house into 27 steps, each handled by a different sub-contractor.  The sub-contractors responsible for each step would move from lot to lot in a regimented order that drove down the cost dramatically.  They were basic houses to be sure, although they usually included appliances, but they were also affordable, ranging between $7,000 to $9,000, a price most Americans could actually afford. Indeed, with the new veterans’ and housing programs from the federal government, a new home could be had for $400 down!

And Levitt wasn’t just offering houses, he was offering communities.  His first Levittown, on Long Island, just outside of New York City, was the first of many and included schools, shopping centers, and community pools. The idea was not just to provide a house but to deliver the full American Dream in one neatly landscaped package. “A new way of life,” he promised—and delivered.

Levitt did more than change American housing, he changed the landscape of America.  Beyond the millions who suddenly could afford a home, Levitt’s influence forever changed the urban-rural dynamic. The post-war America was no longer bound to city limits. Americans could now work in the city and retreat to their own homes in quiet neighborhoods at night, away from the urban hustle and bustle. It was a migration that sparked both the growth and the challenges that suburban America faces today.

And then there’s economics.  Homeownership became the cornerstone of many American’s personal investment. Beyond that, a myriad of industries sprang up around this mass migration to the suburbs—home appliances, gardening, home improvement stores, giant sprawling department stores, and yes, the ubiquitous family car. Levitt didn’t just build homes; he built an economy. William Levitt passed away in 1994 having over the course of his life having built homes for over 140,000 American families and hundreds more in Puerto Rico and France. In 1998 Time Magazine would name him as one of the “100 Most Important People of the 20th Century”. From neighborhoods to communities to highways leading to the suburbs, his legacy was evident across the American landscape. Though not without its criticisms, there’s no denying the impact Levitt made on modern America.  Each cul-de-sac, each backyard BBQ, each community pool is a testament to a man who took the American Dream, packaged it into a simple, attainable vision, and laid it out across the wide stretches of this great nation. Love it or hate it, the suburban lifestyle has William Levitt’s name written on it, and it’s echoed on tree-lined streets and community welcome signs across the country.