Even those possessed of the most superficial knowledge of Levittown's history know the basic one-liner: In 1947 William Levitt, president of Levitt & Sons, mass-produced 17,447 suburban homes on old Long Island potato field for homecoming GI's. The question that frequently arises pertains to the interlude. If the War ended in 1945 and Levittown began in 1947, than what happened in 1946?
Certainly the year was not devoid of milestones. The Cold War began with Sir Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech, Dr. Benjamin Spock published Baby and Child Care, and H.G. Wells died. But what were Levitt & Sons doing in 1946?
In 1943, just before entering the U.S. Navy, William Levitt was approached by George Hubbell of the Merillon Estate Company finding to unload some acreage in the Island Trees/Jerusalem area rendered unprofitable by the golden nematode infestation on potato crops.
Years later, in the October 2, 1977 issue of The New York Times, he described the meeting wherein he and Hubbell "worked out a deal whereby I'd pay $225 an acre for the first parcel of 200 acres, with the price increasing in steps each time I entered an option for another 200-acre parcel."
By V-J Day, that exercised option was up to 1,000 acres. A large development in this neck-of-the-woods was a foregone conclusion even if Levitt had conceptualized something considerably more modest than what came to pass. Fact is, Levitt & Sons were not sitting on their hands in 1946; they were keenly alive to the fact that the nation was in the throes of the most severe housing shortage in its history and were already addressing the issue: in the Town of North Hempstead.
Throughout 1946, Levitt & Sons were building homes in Westbury - their first exclusively-for-veterans houses consisting of 1000 two-story, three-bedroom Cape Cods on plots 35 percent larger than those in Levittown in addition to 31 experimental homes in Albertson wherein they experimented with a number of design features and a floor heating system. Another 191 were built in Carle Place.
Here, again, an example of the genius of the Levitt system of production; the manner in which Levitt & Sons tackled challenges and took every contingency into consideration; the resourcefulness that kept them a viable home builder in the 1930s whilst others succumbed to the shock waves of the stock market crash.
These pre-Levittown mass-produced Cape Cods allowed the company to test the uncertain waters of the post-World War II years when so many economists and politicians feared a return to soup kitchens and unemployment lines. What worked was augmented with new design ideas and marketing strategies. What didn't work was discarded - or put on the back burner.
Thus when the Westbury and Carle Place homes looked like they might sit on the market longer than what was in the builder's "comfort zone", Levitt & Sons advanced the strategy of rental units in their Island Trees/Jerusalem project. When the initial 2,000 units there ballooned into 6,000 by the end of 1948 with no end in sight to the demand, and Congress passed the Housing and Rent Act of 1949 with the Federal Housing Authority insuring loans up to 90%, Levitt & Sons quickly jumped back to sales before facing the insurmountable task of being the planet's biggest landlord.
Like the hundreds of experiments conducted by Bell and Edison, respectively bringing about a working telephone and practical light bulb, Levitt & Sons proved to the world that home building could be perfected to a science. The lost year of 1946? They spent it in the laboratory.
Want to learn more about the history of Levittown and the surrounding communities? Visit www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org