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An Interview With Levitt
In 1993, Hofstra professor Stuart Bird interviewed
William J. Levitt, who was 86.
The following is an excerpt from this discussion.

Q. How did you get involved in the building business with your father and your brother? How did that happen?
A. We were in the custom building, starting in 1929. Came the war and we went to Norfolk, Va., and built mass housing, cheap housing for the Navy and after that we went into only volume, low cost housing.

Q. I've read a number of things about the option that you took on the land near Hempstead, you know the farmland. Did you take that option before the war?

A. No, just when the war broke out, not with the United States. First it was Europe. ... The lot, 1,200 acres of Levittown, was offered to us and then on a basis of I think a couple of hundred acres per year for six years, each option was predicated on our exercising. ... We exercised the first option and then I went to the Navy and then when it rolled around for the second year, my brother who was in charge then was going to let the thing drop and I told him, "No, you exercise it." And we exercised the options as they came up. That was for a total of 1,200 acres, but Levittown finally embraced a little over 6,000 acres. The rest of it [was added] after I got back.

Q. Were you prepared from the response that you got from the veterans and their families to first renting the homes and then buying the homes.

A. Never expected it. We advertised, originally the first section shot about 1,800 hundred units for rent only, $65 a month. Then we did only for sale and offered the first 65 who'd already rented, gave them the option of continuing to rent of to buy and to buy meant $7,990.

Q. And you got a big response to buying, right?

A. They all bought it.

Q. Why were these homes so important to the veterans and their families?

A. For almost five years, there had been very little building in the United States. It was a terrific pent-up demand. The normal demand in the United States was and is approximately a million, a million-and-a-quarter individual houses a year. There had been virtually none.

Q. But why was it important to them socially? You know, what else was important about owning a house?

A. They needed housing. Population grew ... no place to go.

Q. Were the farmers easy to negotiate in terms of selling their land?

A. No, no problem ... They never realized what they could sell for so much because all of Long Island out there were potato fields.

Q. Some people say that you got your idea for the mass production of houses and how you built them and how you separated workers' skills and how you built on site from Henry Ford's auto line production. Was that true?

A. No, we didn't get our idea from them, but I [found] that building it resembled the automobile industry in reverse. ... In other words, the product stood still, the workman moved. In the automobile business, the product moves, the workmen stand still. It's the reverse.

Q. What were your dealings, if any, with Robert Moses?

A. Nothing much. I knew Mr. Moses quite well. We had no dealings with him directly.

Q. How much planning went into Levittown?

A. Well, for instance, we built one road, Levittown Parkway right across and then each little community had a name that began, let me rephrase it, for the sake of argument, this section called Strawberry Hill, and every house, every street began with an "S," so you could locate it. And we used that all through.

Q. And what about the roads curving, the whole idea of having roads like that?

A. That was us. [It] made for a prettier community.

Q. Were you the one to negotiate with the potato farmers? How did that work?

A. My father and I, my father was a practicing lawyer. I'm a lawyer, but not practicing, my brother (my brother and father are both dead) was an architect, he designed all the houses and chose a general superintendent of construction. All the rest, financing, sales, advertising, merchandising, I did. My father became a landscaping expert. That's the story. Then from there we built up whole organizations. Our home office, the office directly pays 400 people.

Q. Tell me about why do you feel home ownership is important.

A. Because you have a stake. People who live, for instance, a community, for argument, that would be all rental, where people could move in or out, whatever they wanted, there's no stability there. No one bothers with lawns, except for cutting ...

Q. What was the covenant that homeowners had to sign when they bought a home? What was that about?

A. They didn't sign it. It was a restriction, a restricted covenant in the deeds about cutting the grass, maintaining the property, no wash in front of the house or no washlines, you could use an umbrella. There was about a dozen restrictions. One family, which had a lot of violations, I don't pay attention to them anymore.

Q. But you feel they were important?

A. Well, number one they could take them and remodel, there has been a lot of remodeling, but it's been done well. As long as it's been done well, but before remodeling you had to get permission from us. We have houses in Levittown [now] which are priced for $250,000.

Q. How did you keep the prices so affordable? You were $1,500 lower than anyone else could build a house.

A. Primarily because we are not gouges. We were content to make a reasonable profit, that's one. Two, we bought at a lower cost than they did. We bought [by the] carload.

Q. This is another thing you've said: "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.

A. That's right. Originally we would not sell to a black person because it was an old story that if we sold to blacks, whites would not buy ... But I had a meeting with a lot of colored people and with the NAACP and I said, "Give me a chance to get some people in here, because if I start out with black people, I won't get any whites. If I get enough white people in here, then I sell to everybody, provided they're acceptable," which we did and we have no restrictions today.

Q. What would you like to be remembered for? How would you like to be remembered?

A. I would like to stay alive. I don't want to be remembered. I have no preferences.

Q. What do you think your legacy will be?

A. A guy that I suppose gave value for low-cost housing. Not somebody that gave value for half-million dollar houses. Anybody can do that.

Q. So the company is still prospering?

A. Now we are in a peculiar position. I'm incapacitated. My father and my brother are both dead, and we're just marking time.

Q. And your sons are involved in it? Is it your sons or your brother's?

A. Mine. But I have a regular organization ready to punch in full time. Some of my relatives -- I have two in particular that I brought up as my own sons. They're both two very brilliant boys. One's an architect, but even with a postgraduate degree in architecture. The other is chairman of a building and loan in New York.

Q. The original owners, even the people who've moved out to other parts of the Island. They speak about you, your father, not your brother. I don't think they knew your brother so much, in such a special way. How does that make you feel?

A. It's good. They knew my father. I think even more than they knew me because he was a retired lawyer and he was a real specialist in landscaping and he would go around all the time. He'd go knock on the door of a place to tell a woman she should be ashamed of herself, letting her lawn go so long. Things like that. They all loved him. He died about 20 years ago, 25 years ago.

Q. You were very close to him?

A. Oh yeah, yeah.

Q. What about the car? It was the key to the suburbs. Was the automobile the key to suburban living at that time?

A. Oh, yeah. ... Everybody had a car. Then it became two cars. Two cars are no longer just the province of rich people. The average, well-to-do family has two cars. It's a necessity, not a luxury.

Copyright 2006, Newsday, Inc.

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