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The Man Who Built Suburbia

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When William Levitt took out an ad in The New York Times in 1949 advertising a Cape Cod-style home for $58 a month, he knew what the response was going to be. The postwar years in the United States had created both a baby boom and a housing crisis; apartment buildings were becoming congested with reunited couples and their offspring. The city of Chicago had been selling its retired trolley cars as “homes.” Some 50,000 returning veterans had taken up residence in Army huts.

Levitt knew how badly the American family needed to breathe, and he knew government-backed mortgage loans with low interest rates would get millions of them into homes, and serve as much as a source of pride as a steady job or gleaming new car. To that end, Levitt and his family business were steadily transforming the 1,200 acres of potato fields near Hempstead, just 20 miles outside of Manhattan, was into a community. Newly-paved roads acted as arteries and an unprecedented, conveyor-like construction process was putting up 36 homes every day at its peak. The Times ad was just a way to hang a shingle.

Still, Levitt was surprised to see the line in front of his model house: 30 people were waiting to get in, with more arriving every hour. They were there to gape at the modern appliances and floor-to-ceiling picture windows, but they were also ready to buy—and so apprehensive over losing the chance they began to organize eating breaks and reserving their spots in the queue.

When Levitt’s sales office finally opened that month, 1400 contracts were signed on the very first day. There was no down payment and no closing costs; mortgages for the $7,990 asking price were under a comfortable 30-year term. He was targeting veterans—the neediest of the potential buyers—but would soon be inviting everyone else to escape the city and join them in Levittown, ground zero for suburban life as we know it.

Of course, you had to take care of your lawn. You couldn’t use clotheslines outside. There would be no fencing. And while Levitt was terribly sorry, only whites were allowed. If the American family wanted a chance to prosper, they were going to have to play by his rules.

Levitt was born into the construction business. His father, Abraham, built subdivisions on Long Island, later taking both of his children (William and his architect brother, Alfred) under his Levitt and Sons banner.

Alfred was pragmatic; William was an opportunist in the best sense of the word. While building airfields for the Navy during the war, he experimented with various methods of construction that eliminated the glacial, lumbering approach that had most builders erecting only four or five homes a year. His model was the Ford Motor Company, which sent their automobiles down an assembly line. Why couldn’t he send his laborers down an assembly line of sorts, assigning them specific tasks to perform at each home?

Levitt knew the end of the war would bring a surge in the building business. The government anticipated that five million homes would be needed to accommodate the rising marriage and birth rates. Before he was deployed, Levitt had already taken an option out on the Hempstead land. When he returned, he set about completing the largest housing project in American history.

Potential buyers, Levitt knew, wanted to spend roughly twice their annual salary (which averaged $3,800) on a home. Expensive housing and strict lending terms had kept many families in apartments or living with parents to save up for down payments. By streamlining the building process, Levitt could offer both affordability and quality.

Levitt’s homes began sprouting up in July of 1947, with the first buyers moving in by October of that year. His laborers worked under a 26 (by some accounts, 27) point process that required minimal skill. Complex components like plumbing fixtures or staircases were prefabricated by subcontractors and shipped to the site; power tools, a relatively recent innovation, were used to assemble the pieces.

As they made their way from one property to another, each “team” was assigned a very specific task. It was the sole duty of some men to bolt washing machines to the floor; others were responsible for applying white paint or red paint, but not both; workers specialized in tile, lath, and shingles. Instead of paying overtime, as was the custom, Levitt paid them for completed jobs.

Levitt kept his profit margins secretive, but he saved at least $1000 per unit by pouring concrete slab foundations instead of investing in labor to dig a basement. (A “midget boiler” was installed in kitchens as a heating source.) The Levitts also bought lumber mills and nail-making machines. While saving them money in the long run, it also reduced the chance of supplier error: His conveyor belt was so efficient that a bad batch of nails could derail the entire operation.

Roughly 17,000 homes were built in the first Levittown. While the development was intended for veterans, Levitt was already working on land in Pennsylvania. His system was cemented. So, too, was his ideal American family. But for his critics, life in Levittown didn't simply mean access to affordable housing; it meant conformity.

The first families to move in to Levittown, PA in June 1952 were given what amounted to an owner’s manual. City dwellers, Levitt figured, had no idea about crab grass or property maintenance.

Initially, there wasn’t a lot to maintain. Early adopters had to navigate construction equipment, muddy walkways, and the confusion of similar-looking homes. A community was springing up all around them, though, with parks and pools and places of worship. Dirt patches were replaced by lush green lawns; siding was painted different colors.

Inside, homeowners were brought up to speed on the benefits of an open floor plan. The walls that had led to rodent-like living in the city had been eliminated, with dining rooms bleeding into kitchens and attics that could be refinished (at buyer expense) for added space. Kitchens were outfitted with the newest electronic appliances and painted pink to counteract the white, overly sterile prep areas of prewar housing. They were placed in the rear so windows could overlook the backyard, where Levitt presumed a baking mother would watch her children play. A television—free with home purchase—first sat near, then replaced, the living room fireplace. At night, the large picture windows let passersby pick up decorating tips. 

Most Levittown residents were couples under 30 with children under 5. The nuclear dynamic prompted Levitt to structure his neighborhoods with child-rearing in mind. Streets were curved to slow traffic; schools were never more than a mile’s walking distance from home; the development virtually shut down from noon until 2 p.m., which was a kind of communal nap time. The lawns older children swatted balls in were initially manicured by Levitt, then turned over to the homeowner for upkeep.

Levitt’s father was known as the “VP of grass seed,” and was meticulous in educating residents on the value of landscaping. He even wrote a column in the local newspaper with gardening tips. If someone’s grass went unchecked for over a week, owners would be fined. Eventually, the Levitt lawn care system grew so regimented that the Hempstead residents were warned by the fire department to stop watering so often: it was reducing pressure in the hydrants.

The front yards were emblematic of Levitt’s desire for a uniform community, one as tightly wound as his building philosophies. Levitt hated clotheslines, believing they ruined a neighbor’s view. Anyone drying outdoors was obligated to use a special rotary unit that could be put away when not in use. Fencing was vetoed for the same reason, but once a few rogue property owners put up stakes, it became an unenforceable condition.

To live in a Levittown and adhere to such conditions invited commentary. Some municipalities were near affluent communities that considered the developments' affordable housing a kind of charity and feared they would soon devolve into “fresh air slums.” Others, like Lewis Mumford, condemned Levitt for turning communities into rows of identical Barbie dream houses, where individuals were swapped out for archetypes of commuting husbands and kitchen-clopping wives.   

More alarming was Levitt’s mandate that no black homeowners would be admitted into his towns. From a Jewish family, Levitt argued he knew all about prejudice and had no personal quarrel with minorities. It was a business decision, he argued: if a “Negro” bought in, whites wouldn’t.

“We can solve a housing problem or we can try to solve a racial problem, but we cannot combine the two,” he said. Protests followed a black family's move into the all-white Levittown, PA neighborhood in 1957, disrupting the otherwise placated population. But even with the ugly reveal of racism in his sterile tracts, Levitt had achieved his homogenized ideal. Even as tensions flared, an ice cream truck would drift by to offer cones to the angry mobs.   

Around 20 million families migrated from the concrete cities to neighboring farmland between 1950 and 1960. By 1980, 60 million had made the trek. Levitt’s expedient method to generate housing—he would go on to build some 140,000 dwellings—created a suburban sprawl, knitting strangers together while distancing some from relatives who stuck to cities.

Satisfied with both his contributions to residential living and his wealth, Levitt sold his business in 1968. In return, he received $92 million dollars’ worth of International Telephone and Telegraph Company stock. He was, for a time, comfortably rich, and spent great sums—until bad investments and falling stock prices wiped him out. When he died in 1994, Levitt had little money to his name.

Today, the Levittowns in New York, Pennsylvania, and Puerto Rico are still active communities. (Another Levittown in New Jersey was renamed Willingboro; one in Maryland was built by Levitt but is known as Belair.)

Levitt was not a timid man. At five feet eight inches, he liked to say he was nearly six feet tall. And despite the civil rights debates his developments would inspire, he never thought of himself as anything less than a visionary.

"…I'm not here just to build and sell houses," he said in 1952. “To be perfectly frank, I'm looking for a little glory, too. It's only human. I want to build a town to be proud of."

Additional Sources:
The Fifties; “Building the Suburban Dream,” The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

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13 Fantastic Museums You Can Visit for Free on Saturday
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On Saturday, September 23, museums and cultural institutions across the United States will open their doors to the public for free, as part of Smithsonian magazine’s annual Museum Day Live! event. Hundreds of museums are set to participate, ranging from world-famous institutions in major cities to tiny, local museums in small towns. While the full list of museums can be viewed, and tickets can be reserved, on the Smithsonian website, we’ve collected a small selection of the fantastic museums you can visit for free this Saturday.

1. NEWSEUM // WASHINGTON, D.C.

The Newseum in Washington, D.C. is an entire museum dedicated to the First Amendment. Celebrating freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition, the museum features exhibits on civil rights, the Berlin Wall, and the history of news media in America. Their latest special exhibitions take a look back at the event of September 11, 2001 and go inside the FBI's crime-fighting tactics.

2. INTREPID SEA, AIR & SPACE MUSEUM // NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK

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New York's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum doesn’t just showcase America’s military and maritime history—it is a piece of that history. The museum itself is one of the Essex-class aircraft carriers built by the United States Navy during World War II. Visitors can explore its massive deck and interior, and view historic airplanes, a real World War II submarine, and a range of interactive exhibits. Normally, a ticket will set you back a whopping $33 (or $19 for New York City residents), but on Saturday, general admission is free with a Museum Day Live! ticket.

3. AUTRY MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN WEST // LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

Perfect for art lovers, history buffs, and cinephiles alike, the Autry Museum of the American West (named for legendary singing cowboy Gene Autry) offers up an eclectic mix of art, historical artifacts from the real American West, and Western film memorabilia and props.

4. MUSEUM OF ARTS AND SCIENCES // DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA

A massive art, science, and history museum located on a 90-acre nature preserve, the Museum of Arts and Sciences features the largest collection of Florida art anywhere in the world, as well as the largest collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia in all of Florida. Its diverse exhibits are alternately awe-inspiring, informative, and quirky, ranging from an exploration of 2000 years of sculpture art to an exhibition of 19th and 20th century advertising posters.

5. INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE HORSE AT THE KENTUCKY HORSE PARK // LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY

The International Museum of the Horse explores the history of—you guessed it!—the horse. That might sound like a narrow scope, but the museum doesn’t just display horse racing artifacts or teach you about modern horse breeds. Instead, it endeavors to tackle the 50-million-year evolution of the horse and its relationship with humans from ancient times to modern times.

6. THE PEGGY NOTEBAERT NATURE MUSEUM // CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

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The 160-year-old Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is pulling out all the stops for this year’s Museum Day Live! In addition to their vast exhibits of animal specimens and cultural artifacts, the museum will be hosting a live animal feeding and a butterfly release throughout the day.

7. OGDEN MUSEUM OF SOUTHERN ART // NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art aims to teach visitors about the rich culture and diverse visual arts of the American South. Right now, visitors can view a collection of William Eggleston's photographs and check out the museum's 10th annual invitational exhibition of ceramic teacups and teapots.

8. BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF INDUSTRY // BALTIMORE, MARYLAND

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Located in a 19th century oyster cannery on the Baltimore waterfront, the Baltimore Museum of Industry tells the story of American manufacturing from garment making to video game design. Visitors this weekend can meet video game designers and create custom games at the museum’s interactive “Video Game Wizards” exhibit.

9. SYLVAN HEIGHTS BIRD PARK // SCOTLAND NECK, NORTH CAROLINA

You can meet 2000 birds from around the world this weekend at the 18-acre Sylvan Heights Bird Park. Visitors to the massive garden can walk through aviaries displaying birds from every continent except Antarctica, including ducks, geese, swans, and exotic birds from all over the world.

10. DELTA BLUES MUSEUM // CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

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Visitors to the Delta Blues Museum can learn about the unique American musical art form in “the land where blues began,” with audiovisual exhibits centered on blues and rock legend Don Nix, as well as Paramount Records illustrator Anthony Mostrom.

11. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NUCLEAR SCIENCE & HISTORY // ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO

America’s only congressionally chartered museum dedicated to the story of the Atomic Age, the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History features exhibits on everything from nuclear medicine to representations of atomic power in pop culture. Adult visitors to the museum will delight in its impressively nuanced take on nuclear technology, while kids will love the museum’s outdoor airplane exhibit and hands-on science activities at Little Albert’s Lab.

12. MUSEUM OF THE MOUNTAIN MAN // PINEDALE, WYOMING

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Dedicated to the mountain men who explored and settled Wyoming in the 19th century, the Museum of the Mountain Man brings American folklore and legends to life. The museum features exhibits on the Rocky Mountain fur trade and tells the story of American folk legend and famed mountain man Hugh Glass (the man Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar playing in 2015's The Revenant).

13. BESH BA GOWAH ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK AND MUSEUM // GLOBE, ARIZONA

Arizona’s Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park and Museum lets visitors connect with history firsthand. The museum is home to the ruins and artifacts of the Salado Indians who inhabited Arizona from the 13th century through the 15th century, and even lets visitors wander through an 800-year-old Salado pueblo.

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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