William J. Levitt: A Social Architect

He built affordable housing -- and helped create suburban America

As part of its anniversary celebration, BusinessWeek is presenting a series of weekly profiles for the greatest innovators of the past 75 years. Some made their mark in science or technology; others in management, finance, marketing, or government. In late September, 2004, BusinessWeek will publish a special commemorative issue on Innovation.

William J. Levitt did not invent suburbia, but by producing the two-bedroom home fast, cheaply, and in enormous numbers, he changed the face and the dynamic of life in America. The grandson of a rabbi who emigrated from Russia to Brooklyn, N.Y., Levitt put affordable roofs over the families of thousands of GIs returning from World War II. On a stretch of Long Island potato fields, aptly named Levittown, the dreams of his war-weary countrymen began to take shape. Slapping together 30 or more houses a day, Levitt sold them at first for less than $7,000 apiece. The ultimate in modernity, his homes boasted refrigerators and washers and were even "television equipped," as Levitt ads crowed.

As a builder out to make a buck, Levitt was an unlikely social architect. But his skills and experience made him a man for his times. Instead of constructing homes one by one, Levitt's crews broke down the tasks assembly-line-style, moving from one wooden frame to the next, adding walls, cabinets, and roofs. From 1947 through the early 1960s, Levitt put up more than 46,000 houses. They were so popular that in 1950, Levitt's face made the cover of Time, drawn against a background of homes arrayed like a battalion of Army pup tents.

Returning soldiers, facing a housing shortage, warmed to Levitt's Cape Cods and slightly larger ranches. For city dwellers, especially, the development was revolutionary. Working-class couples sharing cramped apartments with their parents could afford Levitt homes. Soon shopping malls sprang up, serving residents hungry for consumer goods. With the money saved on housing, suburbanites could set aside cash for their children's college educations, recalls Polly Dwyer, president of the Levittown Historical Society. "This enabled people to go on and do bigger and better things with their lives."

As highways linked suburbia and the cities and the automobile grew ubiquitous, Levitt mapped out Levittowns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Rivals copied his techniques, and almost overnight suburban life became the norm for vast numbers of Americans. Even as suburbia flourished, however, cities deteriorated, racial segregation worsened, and social critics bemoaned the rise of a vapid culture. John C. Keats's 1956 broadside The Crack in the Picture Window called suburbs "developments conceived in error, nurtured by greed, corroding everything they touch."

Levitt figured he was only spreading postwar prosperity. "No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist," he famously said. Levitt did, however, share the faults of his era, refusing to sell to blacks as late as the mid-1960s, according to Long Island newspaper Newsday.

For a time, Levitt shared in the prosperity he helped foster. He sold his company in the late 1960s to ITT Corp. for $92 million in stock. But as he tried to spread his suburban vision to South America and Africa, Levitt fell on hard times, dying in financial distress in 1994. His legacy is hotly debated, but for better or worse, he will always be the hustling optimist who helped change the nation's landscape -- and its values.

By Joseph Weber

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