William Jaird “Bill” Levitt was a legendary homebuilder and birther of well thought out planned communities where childhood memories were made a lifetime ago. Bill Levitt was a born entrepreneur and World War II Navy Seabee veteran who understood economics and how to build quickly with virtually no budget and limited resources during the war. He was a man who could do a lot with nothing. Levitt was once quoted as saying, “Any damn fool can build homes. What counts is how many you can sell for how little.”
Levitt revolutionized the housing construction assembly line beginning with Levittown, New York just 26 miles east of New York City. He started with rich potato farmland and built his first real planned community. He pioneered a simple 27-step process to building homes by taking the automotive assembly line and reverse engineering it by moving workers from one lot to the next with a specific task. Most of his labor was independent contractors. If you could drive a nail or swing a paint brush, Levitt would hire you.
Levitt also pre-built subassemblies like plumbing, electrical, and framing to where these items were dropped on each lot with precision timing like an auto assembly line. Levitt’s approach would later be known as “Just In Time” manufacturing. He practiced this approach with every community he built.
If you grew up in a Levitt & Sons community, you understand what I am talking about, especially if you were there to see it unfold. Levitt provided the bones of home and hearth. Buyers and homeowners provided the love and memories. He made buying a new home possible for struggling war veterans who didn’t have a place to live. Without Levitt & Sons, they wouldn’t have been able to afford a home. Think of Levitt & Sons as the Bailey Building & Loan from the holiday classic “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Levitt gave buyers the bones. Home buyers provided the memories.
There were dozens of Levitt & Sons communities built not only across the United States, but in France, Puerto Rico, and Spain. ITT acquired Levitt & Sons in the late-1960s and Levitt’s magic pretty much ended there. Levitt & Sons became ITT/Levitt and the company just wasn’t the same—nor were the communities it built. In fact, construction methods became so poor ITT/Levitt was asked to leave one Maryland county. The Levitt name has been tried and has failed numerous times in the decades since.
It just couldn’t be done without Bill Levitt.
I grew up in the suburban Washington/Baltimore Levitt community of “Belair At Bowie” in the middle between these two great cities at the intersection of U.S Route 50 and Maryland Route 3 west of Annapolis, Maryland. If you were among the first residents at Belair early in the 1960s—if you grew up here—you know and remember the extraordinary atmosphere that existed in the heart of rural Maryland 60 years ago. We were very isolated and all we had was each other.
The Belair Estate, some 1,700 acres consisting of a mansion, stables, horse property, and abundant meadowlands, came up for sale in 1957. Levitt and a number of other developers understood the great opportunity that existed in this remote location in the middle of nowhere. Developers knew the value of “nowhere” because Route 3 and the soon-to-be-opened John Hanson Highway (Route 50) were going to connect “nowhere” with Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis. There would be phenomenal growth in this region in the years to follow. There would also be incredible memories for those fortunate enough to grow up here.
The Belair Estate was a developer’s gold mine. There was a bitter legal dispute between Levitt & Sons and the sellers. Levitt was the successful bidder—yet—because the seller didn’t care for Levitt’s plan for the land, chose to sell to a lower bidder despite Levitt being the highest bidder. Levitt tied up the sale in court, which resulted in a second bidding war and Levitt’s successful bid.
Levitt got his Belair.
Bill Levitt had an appreciation for the history of the Belair Estate and for Laurel— Maryland’s Montpelier estate nine miles away. He had a terrific plan for his Belair At Bowie, and later—Montpelier with more upscale homes in the late 1960s. There would be carefully thought out sections, parks and recreation sites, pools and tennis courts, churches, community centers, and shopping much as he’d done in other Levitt communities. Levitt would keep the Belair mansion and the property intact, then, ultimately give this historical property to the City of Bowie for one dollar in 1964.
This is where Belair’s official history ends and the unofficial begins.
Kids who grew up in Levitt communities understand what growing up “Levitt” meant. Boomers have kept the memories close for more than 70 years. From Levittown, New York to all Levitt communities beyond, there was something extraordinary about growing up Levitt. Belair At Bowie, like other Levitt communities, was a wonderful place to grow up. It was isolated and all we had to count on was each other. There was a strong sense of community. Historians said Levitt was building suburban slums. The skeptics also said Levitt homes wouldn’t last 50 years.
I beg to differ.
So do untold thousands of other boomers who remember what it was like to grow up Levitt. Levittown, New York and Pennsylvania, like Belair At Bowie, have strong boomer followings. There are civic organizations and social media pages dedicated to Levitt community memories—relationships that go back three quarters of a century.
Talk about staying power?
My Belair At Bowie street, Chesney Lane in the Chapel Forge section, like thousands of others, was alive with screaming kids having a good time playing every sport imaginable until the streetlights came on. Kick Ball. Soft Ball. Football. Dodge Ball. The clatter of bicycles fitted with playing cards. Lemonade stands. Carnivals. Birthday parties. Block parties in the heat and humidity of August right before we went back to school. The aroma of hot charcoal with hot dogs and hamburgers. Our memories of each other and our Belair At Bowie remain strong 60 years later.