Cheap House Builds
The housing market is in tatters, and house prices continue to fall precipitously in many parts of the country, so it might seem a strange time to bring up the subject of housing affordability. But one of the reasons we are in this mess is that people bought houses they couldn’t really afford. At some point in the future, consumer confidence will be restored and people will start buying houses again. Pent-up demand, and the inevitable delays in restarting an industry that has seen the withdrawal of many home builders, will likely produce a spike in prices, and once again the affordability issue will come to the fore.
The term “affordable housing” has come to be associated with social programs and government subsidies, but it once meant commercially built houses that ordinary working people could afford. A pioneer of affordability was the builder Levitt and Sons, whose famous “Levittowns” were the first postwar examples of large, master-planned communities. The story is well known. After World War II, as GIs came home and the peacetime economy gathered steam, the demand for housing grew dramatically. Levitt, an established Long Island builder, set its sights on this new market. William Levitt, the eldest son, applied his wartime experience building barracks with the Navy Seabees to traditional wood-frame construction. He organized the building site like an assembly line. Teams of workers performed repetitive tasks, one team laying floor slabs, another erecting framing, another applying siding, and so on. No one had ever built housing that way before.
The first Levittown was on Long Island, the second in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and the third in New Jersey. The Long Island project, because it was the first—and the closest to New York City—is the best known, but the Bucks County development, which began in 1951, was larger and more comprehensively planned and designed. At that site, the more than 17, 000 homes on nearly 6, 000 acres were intended chiefly for workers employed at a nearby steel plant. The largest and most expensive of the six model homes, the Country Clubber, was for supervisors and executives, but the three-bedroom Levittowner was the workhorse of the development. It sold for $9, 900, which would equal $82, 000 today.
The design of the Levittowner, like the planning of the community, was the responsibility of William’s younger brother, Alfred. Though William Levitt went on to have a long and well-publicized career as a developer and builder, Alfred, who died in 1966 (at only 54), is less remembered. He was a self-taught architect who had spent an entire summer observing the construction of one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s so-called Usonian houses, in Great Neck Estates, Long Island. Many of the Levittowner’s cost-saving features were influenced by this experience: the efficient one-story plan that combined an eat-in kitchen with the living room; the concrete floor slab without a basement; the under-floor heating; the low, spreading roof with no attic; and the carport instead of a garage. (The Usonians, Wright’s answer to affordability, were beautiful, but since they were built one at a time, they were expensive—the Rebhuhn Residence, the one Alfred studied, cost a whopping $35, 000 to build in 1937, the equivalent of more than half a million dollars today.)
Many of the design innovations of the Levittowner were Alfred’s own ideas. A folding basswood screen that slid on a metal track separated a so-called study-bedroom from the living room, allowing the space to be open or closed. Thermopane (insulated glass) covered a large section of the living-room wall overlooking the garden. The kitchen had a large window facing the street—an early example of a “picture window.” High window sills in the bedrooms provided privacy—and reduced cost. Locating the bathroom and the kitchen on the street side reduced the length of piping to the street mains. There was no mechanical room; instead, a specially designed furnace fit under the kitchen counter, its warm top doubling as a hot plate. The Levitts were careful to give penny-pinching buyers of the Levittowner touches of luxury: the purchase price included a kitchen exhaust fan, an electric range, a GE refrigerator, and a Bendix washing machine. The Country Clubber added a clothes dryer.
A two-way fireplace was located between the kitchen and the living room. Two-way fireplaces were a standard Usonian feature, but while the Levittowner had a low, spreading roof and clean lines, no one would mistake it for a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Yet, although Alfred Levitt’s design looks unremarkable today, in fact this early example of the so-called ranch house represented a revolution in domestic design. One-story living was new to most Americans, as was the open plan combining kitchen, eating space, and living room. The undecorated exterior was unabashedly modern. Picture windows had no precedents in traditional homes; neither did carports. Instead of brick or wood, the exterior walls of the Levittowner were covered with striated sheets of Colorbestos (asbestos cement), which had been developed especially for the Levitts by the Johns Manville Corporation. With integral color that didn’t require painting, this was an early example of low-maintenance siding.