Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

“To the outsider, Levittown, Pennsylvania, seems like a vast mirage, a city of 4,000 spanking new ranch homes where a short year ago were acres of corn and wheat … “
Ladies Home Journal, March 1953


On Monday, June 23, 1952, John and Philomena Dougherty packed up their belongings, and with their two daughters in tow, drove from a government housing project in northeast Philadelphia to their new home in the suburbs. Their journey was not unusual. Between 1950 and 1960, twenty million Americans moved from cities to suburbs. It was the largest internal migration in the country’s history, outstripping many times over the legendary westward migration of the nineteenth century. What made the Doughertys’ journey newsworthy – and, in retrospect, his­toric – was their objective: to be the first official residents in the new development of Levittown in Bucks County.

If mass suburbs were postwar Ameri­ca’s new frontier, then Levittown, Pennsylvania, was its California. By the time it was completed in 1958, its 17,311 dwellings spread out over four munici­palities in lower Bucks County and housed seventy thousand people, a population which made it equivalent to Pennsylvania’s tenth largest city. It was, and remains to this day, the largest self­-contained planned community constructed by a single builder in the United States. The scale and scope of the project insured that it would become synonymous with suburbia itself, a prototype of residential development frequently criticized but widely imitated.

The community was the brainchild of Levitt and Sons, a New York building firm founded in 1929 by attorney Abra­ham Levitt (1880-1962) along with his two sons, Alfred S. (1912-1966), an architect, and William J. (1907-1994), who would become its president, principal salesman, and unofficial spokesman. During the 1930s, the firm erected custom-designed houses in suburban Long Island for upper middle class clients. But during the early forties, as the country mobilized for war, Levitt seized the opportunity to build for a new market. In 1942, the firm won a federal contract to supply twenty-two hundred defense housing units for the U.S. Navy in Norfolk, Virginia. The project would forever change the way the company did business.

The need to manufacture houses quickly and efficiently compelled Levitt to think outside the box. Under the tradition­al system, skilled contractors fabricated one house at a time using craft techniques and traditional building materials. The result was sturdily built and often distinctively designed homes, but the process was slow and expensive. Levitt responded by imposing a factory-like rationale. With a scientific eye for efficiency, Levitt broke down the twenty-six-step construction process into more than one hundred separate tasks. Laborers, working in teams, would then be assigned just one step in the construction process, which they would repeat at each house site. As one crew finished its assigned task, it was quickly followed by another crew, which would perform its task before moving on to the next structure.

William Levitt, known to nearly all as Bill, characterized the operation as an assembly line in reverse. Instead of the product moving down the line to workers’ stations, employees and materials moved down the line to a stationary product. The system reduced Levitt’s dependence on skilled labor and the amount of time normally devoted to planning out the next task, even if it may have made house building less than stimulating. One worker’s job consisted solely of bolting washing machines to the floor. “The same man does the same thing every day, despite the psychologists. It is boring: it is bad: but the reward of the green stuff seems to alleviate the boredom of the work,” Levitt told Fortune.

Levitt’s defense housing contract provided a trial run, but it was not until after World War II that his mass production techniques were really put to the test. Returning veterans and their new families had spiked demand for new housing, but the key ingredient was federal support for home financing. By offering long-term, low-interest mortgages and reduced or eliminating down payment requirements, the Federal Housing Authority and, later, the GI Bill of Rights, helped place homeownership within reach of millions of Ameri­cans. Buoyed by these incentives, Levitt in 1947 set about transforming four thousand acres of potato fields on Long Island into the largest mass housing development of its day.

The scale of Levittown, New York, and the speed with which it was built – less than five years – made Levitt a household name. Time pronounced him “the Henry Ford of Housing” and placed him on its cover. In 1950, his firm built one out of every eight houses in United States. His product was also a huge hit with con­sumers, particularly the veterans who lined up to purchase (or in some cases rent) one of the seventeen thousand units, many of them identical Cape Cods, for the unheard of low price of $7,990.

Levitt and Sons was not without its critics. Architects panned the develop­ment as shoddily built and aesthetically barren. Architectural critic and urban planner Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), an outspoken opponent of large-scale public works, admired Levittown’s mechanics but declared its design to be “socially backward.” “It is a one-class community on a great scale, too congested for effective variety and too spread out for social relationships,” he said. Publicly, Levitt refused to yield ground. “What would you call the places our homeown­ers left to move out here? We give them something better and something they can pay for.” Privately, however, Bill Levitt recognized some of the development’s shortcomings, particularly its visual monotony, and vowed to improve.

Levitt got his chance in 1951. Early that year, the United States Steel Corporation announced plans to build a massive steel plant along the banks of the Delaware River in lower Bucks County. Located twenty-two miles north of Philadelphia and just over the river from Trenton, New Jersey, lower Bucks was situated between two major urban centers, making it an ideal location for residential growth. The arrival of a major new employer only sweetened the proverbial pot. Even before U.S. Steel officially broke ground for its new Fairless Works, Levitt agents began buying land for the second development. By summer, Levitt had closed deals with between one hundred and fifty and one hundred and seventy­-five individual property owners, mostly farmers, for more than fifty-seven hundred contiguous acres in Falls, Bristol, and Middletown Townships and Tully­town Borough.

By buying the property “in one fell swoop,” as he called it, Levitt now had the chance to create not just rows of houses but a coherent community. “I’m not here just to build and sell houses …. I want to build a town to be proud of,” Levitt told the New York Times. He also announced his intention of offering a wider range of housing styles and types, within the limitations imposed by his factory system. “Levittown, Pa., will be the least monotonous mass housing group ever planned in America,” Levitt boasted shortly after announcing plans, in July 1951, for a planned community of sixteen thousand dwellings.

At the center of Levitt’s new develop­ment was the individual neighborhood. The final master plan designated forty of them, ranging in size from fifty-one to nine hundred and ninety houses, with a mean size of four hundred and thirty. Every three to five neighborhoods were massed together to form a “master block,” roughly a square mile area bounded by parkways and greenways. Although the goal of Levittown was to house people, and lots of them, by arranging them around thoughtfully landscaped neigh­borhoods drawn to human scale, Levitt hoped to create the look and feel of a garden community. Interior streets were intentionally curved to impede traffic and break up sight lines. Access to each neighborhood was limited to three or four entrance points. Although dependent on the automobile – an estimated ninety­-seven miles of roads crisscrossed the community – project architect Alfred Levitt was determined that Levittown not be tyrannized by it. Houses on perimeter streets were to face inward, away from the main thoroughfares such as the Levittown Parkway, which would be softened by intensive landscaping. For the same reason, the company also banned property owners from erecting fences, which it deemed unsightly and unnecessary.

At the same time, Levittown’s maze of curvilinear streets and irregularly shaped sections demanded some sort of internal logic to help orient both visitors and residents. Each neighborhood was bounded by a single circum­ferential, or “collector,” street, which provided access to all interior streets and carried the same name as the neighborhood. In turn, each interior street began with the same first letter as the neighborhood. Stonybrook Drive, for instance, encircled the Stonybrook section and provided access to interior streets such as Sunset Lane, Summer Lane, Shadetree Lane, and so forth. (Levitt purposely did not use the term “street” because of its urban connotations, and substituted “lanes” in the eastern sections and “roads” in the western sections.) The alliteration was especially important during the early years, when street signs were virtually the only features that distinguished one section from another. One pioneering resident joked, “even cats and dogs can’t find their porch stoop.”

A critical component of Levittown’s master plan was its schools. Levitt and Sons allocated land for elementary schools near the center of each master block so that no child would need to walk more than a half-mile to school or cross a major intersec­tion. Levitt also hoped that by having children attend schools in their own neighborhood, residents would be encouraged to identify with other families in their section. Little League baseball fields, swimming pools, and “parklets” were distrib­uted according the same logic. If parents sent their children to the same school and enrolled them in the same leagues, they would be more likely themselves to socialize with one another, creating a harmonious and, therefore, attractive environment.

When it came to shopping, Levitt and Sons took a more centralized approach. Based on its experience in New York, the firm concluded that neighborhood-based commerce disrupted traffic patterns and produced unsightly commercial strips. For Pennsylvania, architect Alfred Levitt proposed a main shopping center near the development’s southeastern perimeter. The center’s location shielded neighborhoods from traffic and congestion while at the same time making it accessible to shoppers who did not live in Levittown. When com­pleted in 1955, the sixty-acre Levittown Shopping Center, later renamed Shop-A-Rama, was the largest outdoor pedestrian mall east of the Mississippi, with space for ninety stores – many of them chains such as Sears, Food Fair, Kresge’s, McCrory’s, Grants, Woolworth’s and Sun-Ray Drugs – and six thousand automobiles! During its heyday, the shopping center served as Levittown’s ersatz Main Street, hosting activities such as “Miss Levitteen” beauty pageants, Easter parades, and political rallies (for John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, among others).

The heart of the Levittown plan was the single-family house. Between 1952 and 1958, Levitt and Sons built six different models, from the modest, two-bedroom, misleadingly named Rancher – actually a modified Cape Cod, first introduced in 1953 – to the more upscale, three-bedroom Country Clubber, introduced in 1952 but updated and expanded two years later. Borrowing from Detroit’s automakers, Levitt offered each model in several different styles and model years. Differences in styles were limited almost entirely to rooflines, carport placement, foundation angles, and colors; interior floor plans were largely identical. Moreover, Bill Levitt believed that his system of mass production required he build only one house model per section. The result, particularly in the early sections, were entire neighborhoods of nearly identical Levittowners, Ranchers, or Country Clubbers.

Levitt trusted most consumers would willingly trade individuality and conven­tional building elements for cost-effectiveness and efficiency. By substituting radfantly heated concrete slabs for basements, Levitt estimated he saved consumers a thousand dollars per dwelling. (Like most of Levitt’s initiatives, this controversial shortcut caught on; by 1952, twenty-five percent of all new houses were being constructed on slab.) He also reduced costs by introducing cheaper and more efficient materials – bamboo curtains, for instance, instead of solid closet doors, and specially designed countertop boilers – always bought in bulk. At the same time, Levittown models featured efficient, built-in, all-electric General Electric kitchens, contemporary, open-plan interiors, and large picture windows, all in an effort to appeal to young, brand-conscious, style-savvy homebuyers. A popular – and cost saving – option in many two-floor models was an expandable attic that could be finished into a third bedroom or rumpus room for the kids. Each house also came fully landscaped, a feature of which family patriarch Abraham Levitt, an amateur horticulturist, was particularly proud.

Levitt billed it “the most house for the money.” Judging from demand, con­sumers agreed. During the opening weekend in December 1951, more than thirty thousand people converged on the company’s main sales office, conspicuously located opposite the train station at Tullytown, to inspect one of Levitt’s three sample houses. During that first weekend alone, the firm sold more than three hundred units and averaged sixteen hundred sales over the next several months. By May 1952, the first year’s production of single-floor Levittowners had been completely sold out. Priced at an astonishingly low $9,990 and requiring little – ­if any – money down, the Levittowner was a bargain.

Construction began in April with an army of laborers and subcontractors working with military precision. Cement was mixed on site to expedite the pouring of concrete slabs. Materials, such as framing lumber, were pre-cut in a main lumber yard, transported by truck to each house site, and bundled “combat loaded” with pieces needed first on top. Bill Levitt saw no advantage to prefabricating wall sections or roof trusses, since they would have been too bulky to transport. Other supplies, including aluminum-framed windows, asbestos siding, and kitchen appliances, arrived by train at the central warehouse – at the rate of forty-eight carloads a day – where they were unloaded and then re-packaged in house-sized amounts for delivery to the job site. During good weather, crews worked seven days a week. The result was a dazzling production record. At its peak, workers were turning out houses at the rate of fifty per day – or one house every sixteen minutes! By April 1953, four thousand houses had been constructed; by mid-1954, another five thousand units had been added. “We are not builders,” Bill Levitt declared. “We are manufacturers.”

Newly completed sections looked eerie, almost like ghost towns, but they never stayed vacant for long. After Levittown’s first twenty families arrived on opening day, Monday, June 23, 1952, new families arrived at the rate of five hundred each month. Most were married couples under the age of thirty with children less than five years old. Newcomers came with “a suitcase in one hand, and a baby under the other,” quipped one observer. In 1953, less than four percent of Levittown’s population was over the age of forty-five.

The crush of school-age children placed a considerable burden on local school districts charged with the task of educating Levittown’s youth. With new sections opening on weekends, it wasn’t unusual for school administrators to encounter between one hundred and fifty to three hundred new faces waiting to register on Monday mornings. To keep pace, schools taught students in two shifts and cobbled temporary classrooms from trailers. Parochial schools also felt the crunch. St. Michael the Archangel, Levittown’s first and largest Roman Catholic congrega­tion, postponed construction of its church building for a full decade so that funds could be dedicated to the building of an elementary school and, several years later, a major addition.

Youth had its advantages. During the fifties, Levittown supported three little leagues, thanks in part to the communi­ty’s ample supply of baseball fields, and probably played some of the most competitive pre-teen baseball in the country. In 1960, a team from the Levittown American League, competing in the first nationally televised champi­onship game, won the Little League World Series in Williamsport Levittown also attracted national publicity by becoming the first community in the United States to name a school in honor of Walt Disney (1901-1965). The popular animator and producer flew to Levittown for the dedication ceremonies and was greeted by throngs of residents. Original cels from popular Disney Studios films, among them Dumbo and Sleeping Beauty, donated by Disney himself, still decorate the school’s classrooms.

With its green lawns and tidy, single­-family homes, Levittown during the fifties seemed to conform to every postwar suburban stereotype, both good and bad. Following policies first established on Long Island, Levitt and Sons refused to sell directly to blacks. As a result, Levit­town did not receive its first African American family until 1957, and then only after considerable local resistance. In other important ways, though, Levittown belied popular perceptions of suburbia. A 1953 survey revealed Levittown to be actually more diverse than the rest of the country, attracting Catholics and Jews in numbers disproportionate to their representation in the general population. Levittown’s assortment of churches and synagogues­ – built on land donated by the developer­ – testified to this religious melting pot.

As one might have expected, about half of Levittown’s residents in the fifties were drawn from metropolitan Philadelphia, but in some of the community’s blue-collar sections it was estimated that as many as twenty-five percent of residents came from the anthracite region of northeastern Pennsylvania. Sections bounded by Falls Township, home to U.S. Steel’s Fairless Works, attracted a number of transplanted steelworkers from western Pennsylvania, prompting one journalist to remark that Levittown might be better called “Kens­ington North, Trenton South, or McKeesport East.” Levittown’s proximity to Trenton and Philadelphia also attracted a significant number of white-collar commuters, including a small group of academics attracted to what they perceived to be a grand social experiment in mass housing.

Neighborhoods reflected the diverse ethnic, religious, and social mix in the early years. One resident recalled that it was not uncommon to find college professors living next to truck drivers, “a mix of Bronx born Jews and Nanticoke coal crackers.” By U1e late fifties, though, Levittown was becoming increasingly stratified by income level. In the Stonybrook section, for instance, white-collar professionals began moving to more upscale neighborhoods within Levittown or out of the area entirely, while blue-collar families tended to stay put and build additions. This sort of class structure was virtually embedded in Levittown’s design: since specific housing types tended to be clustered in particular sections, it stood to reason that particular sections – and by association, townships­ – would attract residents from similar socio-economic backgrounds. Middletown Township, home to forty-five hundred Levitt-built dwellings and all of its Country Clubber models, became regarded as the “status” township; Bristol Township, meanwhile, with nearly eighty-four hundred mostly lower cost homes, defined the other end of the continuum.

In 1954, partly in an effort to congeal these growing rifts, a group of concerned residents began calling for political incorporation. Although Levittown represented the largest single voting bloc in Bucks County, its power was dispersed over four separate municipalities, each with its own ordinances and regulations. By incorporating, Levittown residents would theoretically be able to cohere around common concerns and more effectively address issues affecting all homeowners. The effort was defeated, though, largely because residents of Falls Township were understandably reluctant to share their ample, U.S. Steel-infused tax base. The missed opportunity would haunt Levittown for years. By 1972, only two residents of Levittown had been elected to the county’s board of commis­sioners; representation on the state level at the time was also minimal. In time, though, this would be resolved by the election in 1994 (and reelection in 1998) of Levittown native Mark Schweiker as lieutenant governor. (He assumed the governorship on Friday, October 5, 2001, upon the resignation of Governor Tom Ridge, who then assumed the position of director of the Office of Homeland Security following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America.)

Fifty years later, Levittown’s borders are still the same, but much within its boundaries is not. Disparate renovations, additions, and modernizations have transformed its rows of indistinguishable houses into a patchwork of personalized dwellings, many completely unrecogniz­able from their original incarnation as Levittowners or Ranchers or Jubilees.
Large enclosed shopping malls have rendered the once thriving Levittown Shop-A-Rama obsolete, reducing it to little more than a white elephant. While an impressive number of baby boomers have remained in Levittown to raise their own families, children no longer crowd its sidewalks. Perhaps the most impressive aspect about today’s Levittown is not so much how it continues to distinguish itself from the rest of the country, but how much the rest of the country has come to resemble it. Thanks to the Levitts, and the thousands who pursued their dream of homeownership, suburbia is no longer a crabgrass frontier but a settled way of life.

In May 2002, as Levittown – the leviathan of all suburban developments – observes its fiftieth anniversary, it marks not only the way builders began reshaping the landscape, but it graphical­ly illustrates the way developers began redefining ways of life for thousands of city dwellers and small town residents drawn to, as Levitt and Sons promised, “the most perfectly planned community in America!” Levittown, Pennsylvania, offered, in the words of salesman and idea man Bill Levitt, “an opportunity to live the American dream..”


For Further Reading

Baxandall, Rosalynn, and Elizabeth Ewen. Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Jackson, Kenneth. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Kelly, Barbara M. Expanding the American Dream: Building and Rebuilding Levit­town. Albany: State University of New York, 1993.

Popenoe, David. The Suburban Environ­ment: Sweden and the United States. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977.


Curtis Miner is senior curator of popular culture and political history at The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. This article grew out of research for an exhibit, Levittown, Pa. – Building the Suburban Dream, opening on Saturday, May 4, 2002, and continuing through January 5, 2003, marking the fiftieth anniversary of Levittown. After its showing at The State Museum, the exhibit will travel to the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Bucks County, where it will be on view from January through March 2003.