William Levitt, a pioneer in suburb building

January 29, 1994|By New York Times News Service

William Levitt, 86, the New York developer who built the prototype for the suburbs that would lure middle-class Americans out of cities by the millions after World War II, died yesterday of a progressive kidney disease at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y.

In 1947, he created Levittown, N.Y., where in the next four years, his firm, Levitt & Sons, built more than 17,000 cheap, nearly identical 800-square-foot houses, which sold for as little as $7,990.

The Long Island community -- in Nassau County, fully 10 miles from the New York City border -- whose houses were built much like cars on an assembly line, was viewed by many as a modern marvel, a deliverance for GIs returning from war and other young adults who normally could not have afforded suburban homes.

To others, it was the insidious archetype of a dehumanizing world of uniformity. In Levittown's early years, before many of the homes had been customized by their owners, some of its residents repainted their houses in odd color combinations to distinguish them from others in their neighborhoods.

Still, Mr. Levitt was proud of his innovations, which allowed his workers to build as many as 36 houses a day on the design created by his brother, Alfred.

"What it amounted to was a reversal of the Detroit assembly line," he said in a 1989 interview. "There, the car moved while the workers stayed at their stations.

"In the case of our houses, it was the workers who moved, doing the same jobs at different locations. To the best of my knowledge, no one had ever done that before."

He went on to other projects and to fabulous wealth. In 1968, he sold Levitt & Sons to International Telephone and Telegraph for $92 million. He lost much of his wealth in the 1970s and 1980s in business deals gone sour.

Nonetheless, he and his father and brother, who were associated with him for much of his career, were labeled by urban historian Kenneth Jackson as the family that had the greatest impact on postwar housing in the United States.

The company was an innovator in the design and construction of inexpensive single-family houses.

It made its mark in the layout of suburban communities, creating immense -- and, some critics said, monotonous -- patterns of houses.

It developed quick and cost-efficient house-construction techniques, making much use of prefabricated components. And its building helped shape ways of living in the suburbs.

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