- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 30, 2006

For the concept of suburbs, and with them, the American dream, thank William Levitt. He was the post-World War II development magnate who applied the assembly-line method to home building and deployed marketing that convinced tens of thousands Americans that owning their own home was within reach.

In 1957, Mr. Levitt’s company, Levitt & Sons, acquired Maryland’s historic Belair estate — the former dwelling of Maryland’s Colonial Gov. Samuel Ogle — as the site for the “Belair at Bowie” development Mr. Levitt envisioned.

“The initial [plan] was for 4,000 houses,” says Stephen Patrick, director for the Bowie city museums. “But it went way beyond that.”

Ultimately, at least 2,000 more houses than Mr. Levitt originally planned were constructed in Bowie. Nevertheless, the development was significantly smaller than the projects Mr. Levitt built prior to Belair at Bowie. The name, Belair at Bowie, didn’t stick, in part because of the confusion it generated at the post office, where mail meant for Belair at Bowie residents routinely went astray to the town of Bel Air in Harford County.

“Keep in mind [that] Levittown, N.Y., and Levittown, Pa., both topped off with slightly more than 17,000 houses each,” says James Jacobs, an architectural historian with the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.

“While a massive undertaking for the D.C. market, Belair [at Bowie] was a considerably more modest venture,” Mr. Jacobs says.

The institution of federal housing loans for returning military personnel and other groups, combined with Mr. Levitt’s notion of a house as a marketable consumer item, heralded a sea change in the way Americans looked at buying real estate, Mr. Jacobs says.

“He focused on providing the maximum space and amenities for the least amount of money,” he says, noting that Mr. Levitt helped propagate the idea of “trading up” to a larger house as one’s income grew and life circumstances changed.

“Everyone wanted a Country Clubber,” Mr. Levitt’s most expensive model, “but not everyone could afford it,” Mr. Jacobs says. Thus, moving from a two-bedroom Cape Cod to a Country Clubber carried with it a whiff of status.

Those homeowners who were first to settle in “Levitt Bowie” considered themselves pioneers of suburbia. Although critics contended then — and now — that Levitt homes exhibited a stultifying sameness, those who actually lived in them in the early years recall first the cozy feeling of community.

“Everybody banded together,” says Audrey Scott, secretary of the Maryland Department of Planning and a Levitt Bowie resident for 40 years. “Almost everyone who came here, came here from somewhere else; they didn’t have their extended family at their beck and call” to assist with home upkeep or child care.

While pushing baby carriages along Bowie’s streets and enjoying backyard barbecues together, neighbors often became fast friends.

“We used to call Bowie ‘Fertile Valley,’” Ms. Scott remembers. “It seemed like everyone who moved in back then was expecting.”

Several of her current neighbors have young children or are expecting babies.

Ms. Scott says the symmetry between the Bowie of the early 1960s and today pleases her.

“There is a lot more diversity here now,” in terms of Levitt Bowie’s ethnic groups and income levels, she says. “That’s good for the community.”

“I think that Bowie residents — in particular the longtime ones — have an intense sense of how revolutionary and important this development was in terms of that postwar building boom,” Mr. Patrick says. “Levitt’s company was building these houses at an incredible clip. There was no landscaping yet, just a sea of mud. There were no street signs; there are stories of people getting lost trying to find their house.”

Selma Jager keenly remembers the buzz. A real estate agent for Century 21’s H.T. Brown Real Estate’s Bowie office, she and her husband moved into a Levitt home with a pink kitchen and pink bathroom in January 1962, in the first section Mr. Levitt developed, known as Somerset.

All the homes in Somerset would have adhered to the same color scheme, just as all the homes in the second section, called Buckingham, would have featured, say, a yellow kitchen.

Such “color-engineering” was one of dozens of ways Mr. Levitt kept costs down, Mr. Jacobs says.

“When I show people some houses in [Levitt] Bowie, I say, ‘You are paying more for your car [today] than we paid for this house 44 years ago,’” Ms. Jager says with a laugh.

Back then, a Cape Cod Levitt house was $13,900 or $14,900, depending on the number of bedrooms, while the ranch style went for $15,500.

“That Cape Cod that sold for $14,900 in 1961 is now $350,000,” Ms. Jager says, who adds that with the softening of the market, inventory is up in Levitt Bowie — and, indeed, in all of Bowie and all of Prince George’s County.

Toward the end of his career, Mr. Levitt also built a few town houses in the area, which these days are priced in the $250,000 range.

Ms. Jager and Ed Haraway of Exit First Realty in Bowie, say these town homes are popular options among those who have never purchased real estate before.

“Bowie has a wide range of homes available, everything from the Levitt homes to the estate homes and more recent upscale town homes built in the last ten years,” says Mr. Haraway, who also has offices in Arbutus, Greenbelt and Waldorf. “We’ve got first-timers on up to the mature buyer who is buying their McMansion.”

The Levitt homes that have been maintained and renovated tend to sell quickly, he says.

“A lot of people through the years have upgraded their kitchens and bathrooms,” he says. “If they are not in good condition, they just sit.”

Ms. Scott says she had renovated all of her bathrooms since taking occupancy of her Bowie home, but still has the original flooring and metal cabinetry in the kitchen.

“I’ve been told they are called ‘retro’ and are very desirable now,” she says, joking that she was considering charging an admission fee for people to come admire them.

Likewise, Ms. Jager’s Bowie home retains traces of the original Levitt finishing touches.

“I still have my pink bathroom,” she says.

William Levitt (1907-1994)

• Served as president of New York’s Levitt & Sons, the real estate development company founded by his father, Abraham.

• Seized opportunity to offer affordable housing to World War II veterans and others by developing Levittown, N.Y., in the mid-1940s; residents began moving in during 1947. Houses started at $8,000.

• Developed Levittown, Pa., “Belair at Bowie” and other projects in the 1950s.

• Sold Levitt & Sons in 1968 to International Telephone and Telegraph for about $90 million.

“No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do.”

— William Levitt (1948)

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