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Sixty Years On, Revisiting the First True American Suburb

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Welcome to CityScapes, a column in which we explore some of the nation's oft-overlooked cities and towns: their local history and real estate offerings. Have a suggestion? Do let us know.

From 1947 to 1951, the development firm of Levitt & Sons constructed the massive development of similar Cape Cod-style homes that would become known as Levittown, N.Y. While not America's first suburb—that honor is usually bestowed on the NYC neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights—Levittown was among the first in the wave of homogeneous developments that swept the nation following the Second World War. Built to meet demand from servicemen returning from the war flush with "G.I. loans," the first batch of 2,000 homes sold out before construction had even commenced, which compelled Levitt to build an additional 4,000, all arranged around serpentine streets to maximize buildable acreage. For efficiency, an abandoned rail line was reopened to ship in lumber and zoning regulations were altered to allow for concrete slab construction. By July 1948, Levitt & Sons were turning out an astounding 30 houses per day. Though marketed as the "new form of American living," Levittown wasn't fit for all its future residents.

? So this is what a typical Levittown block looked like back in the '50s, a row of identically sloped roofs interrupted only by the occasional dormer. That homogeneity carried over to the tenants, too, as a discriminatory lease clause forbade non-whites from renting in the community. Contemporary critics honed in on the racist lease policy and uninspiring, sterile architecture, but people still poured into the newly minted community. In 1949, the developer transitioned to selling rather than renting, and sold off these new "ranches" for $7,990 a piece.

? Despite the homogeneous origins, the Levitt houses have evolved since their construction. Thanks to additions from the subsequent owners, the town now boasts a surprisingly wide range of architectural styles, most based on the original structure. Maureen Hare (above) told the New York Times that she and her husband had expanded their house into a Victorian-style spread almost twice as large as the original "ranch." This sort of rampant remodeling has led to wildly variable pricing for the formerly set-priced homes.

? Of the more than 17,000 houses constructed by Levitt & Sons in the '40s and '50s, this 1948 four bedroom is one of the least significantly altered. Though it could use some help with the staging, the Mets-loving owner is asking $299K.

? On the next rung up on the alteration ladder, this $490K "ranch" has had a garage tacked on to the main structure. A swimming pool has been added, too, but are these improvements worth an almost $200K price jump?

? How does $7,990 become $925K? Just ask the owners of this overgrown Levitt. It has been revamped with new—though not necessarily stylish—fittings, but doesn't have a swimming pool. Still, the idea that the diminutive original framing is hiding somewhere inside this imposing facade is intriguing.
· Levittown Historical Society | History [official site]
· Levittown Through the Years [NYT]
· 49 Balsam Lane [Trulia]
· 179 Swan Lane [Realty Connect USA]
· Levittown [Elliman]