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Levittown: Evolution and Creation

A look at the history of Levittown from historian Paul Manton.
A look at the history of Levittown from historian Paul Manton.
As an Episcopalian student of Charles Darwin, I've never accepted the atheist or fundamentalist claims that evolution and creation were mutually exclusive ideas. The devil is in the details or, more exactly, the dialectic. So it is with Levittown's own Origins Story.

The unparalleled genius that went into the civil engineering, marketing, and mass-production techniques that created Levittown - and set in motion a pattern of suburban development that's now a global phenomenon - makes it difficult for us to forget just how impromptu many aspects of Levittown's construction were.  

When William Levitt organized his May 27, 1947 "March on Hempstead" in which he, accompanied by hundreds of veterans, pleaded the case against the Town of Hempstead's requirement for basements (Section 802 Article 8 of the building code), he had no idea he was about to create the biggest real estate development in history.

In the 16 years between the Crash of '29 and V-J Day, Levitt & Sons erected about two thousand houses in six developments - excluding the 2,350 units William built for the U.S. Navy in Norfolk, Virginia when he was enlisted in the Seabees.    

 Levitt & Sons was already the nation's most successful builder on May 7, 1947 when they publically announced that they'd be building two thousand houses on land purchased in Island Trees during the War. They sold half, as yet unconstructed, within two days as the New York Herald Tribune observed on May ninth.

But even William Levitt couldn't have seared that by the time house number 17, 447 - now at 161 Tardy Lane in Wantagh - was finished in 1951, the development would be 88.54% larger than originally anticipated. Nor could he have prognosticated that the Housing and Rent Act of 1949 would, with its 95% FHA guarantee, have made it more profitable to sell homes and more attractive for families to purchase: the curious circumstance of being both a "buyer's market" and a "seller's market" at the same time.

Nor, indeed, could William Levitt have imagined that real estate companies like Junto, Mid-Island Properties, South Village Properties, and Morris Management would pop up like mushrooms after a rainy spell, ignited by the success of the Island Trees development.

So many exquisite details went into the architectural features of the Levitt & Sons house - many the brainchild of Alfred Levitt - and so standardized was the production technique in the field, that it's easy to forget that Levittown was as much an evolutionary process; that in many respects its growth assumed a life of its own with many aspects occurring off-the-fly and improvised; Levitt & Sons responding to unforeseeable circumstances that surfaced whist the production process was underway. This great creation was also a product of evolution.

Want to learn more about the history of Levittown and the surrounding communities? Visit www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org

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