In October 1947, the landmark Levittown affordable housing comunity was founded on a little over 6,000 acres on Long Island, 34 miles east of midtown Manhattan. The Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages in Stony Brook has assembled an exhibit to mark this anniversary. “Living the American Dream – Levittown and the Suburban Boom” opens February 10 and will run until July 8, 2007. Artifacts, photographs, video and text tell the story.
The housing boom that brought Levittown into existence followed nearly two decades of repressed home-building and baby-rearing that were the result of the Great Depression and World War II. The parents of what would become the baby-boom generation got a big boost toward their piece of the long-deferred American Dream with passage of the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill of Rights. The legislation unleashed a building boom and enabled tens of thousands of veterans to attend college.
In the late 1940s, a new Levittown house could be as small as 750 square feet and prices began at $8,000 and topped out at $12,000, equivalent to about $67,000 to $101,000 in 2007. As of February 2007, listing prices for resale houses ranged from $300,000 to $500,000. Of course, the price comparison is a bit misleading because almost all of the homes have been remodeled and expanded. In fact, the Smithsonian Institution spent years trying unsuccessfully to find an unaltered Levittown house to buy as a museum.
The centerpiece of the Long Island Museum exhibition is a full-scale re-creation of the first floor of a 1951 Levitt ranch house. There is a kitchen with all the appliances and the stainless-steel cabinets from that era. In the living room, there is an interactive space where visitors can sit down and envision what it would have been like to live in this house. There are couches from the period, a coffee table covered by period magazines for people to look through. Beginning in 1951, Levitt workers mounted 12-inch black-and-white Admiral televisions in the pine paneling under the stairs. The screen at the museum will be showing “I Love Lucy.”
There is a less happy aspect to the history of Levittown. When the large (17,400 home) subdivision opened on October 1, 1947, the contracts contained a clause that stated “The tenant agrees not to permit the premises to be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” William Levitt explained the policy to The Saturday Evening Post in 1954: “If we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. That is their attitude, not ours. We did not create it and we cannot cure it. As a company, our position is simply this: we can solve a housing problem or we can try to solve a racial problem. But we cannot combine the two.”
Still, there were a few African-American families moving in and Levitt organization decided to do away with the restrictive covenants at the Long Island Levittown in 1955. However it wasn’t until the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, that the racial restriction was dropped at all Levitt projects around the country.