Do you remember the post-war building boom of the 1950s and 1960s with the sound of hammers, construction machinery, and the smell of fresh cut lumber? This was what we did as kids for entertainment aside from kickball, hide-and-go-seek, listening to records, and watching “Popeye & Friends” after school. We messed around on construction sites and found new and innovative ways to get into trouble.
The parents would round us up to go look at new model homes and wander construction sites. Looking at model homes was a great American pastime a half-century ago. It kept kids occupied and out of trouble – that is if you didn’t wander beyond ropes across the doorways or potty in a dry toilet.
Remember that? It got your hand smacked.
I grew up outside of Washington, D.C. in the Maryland suburbs in the 1960s. Housing developments and apartment complexes were popping up all over the place. In my hometown of Bowie, Maryland, there was developer William “Bill” Levitt and the Levitt & Sons organization that changed the rural landscape overnight.
Levitt bought up rural farmland all over the mid-Atlantic to develop self-contained all-encompassing planned communities where homeowners could go to housekeeping, raise kids, enjoy life, and feel safe. He provided swimming pools and tennis courts along with dedicated locations for places of worship and public schools. If retailers weren’t available locally, Levitt provided shopping facilities. Levitt even opened the Belair National Bank because area banks weren’t willing to locate “way out there in Bowie…” Bowie was a 30-minute drive from Washington! The masses (and businesses) followed and rural Bowie became suburban Washington.
Bill Levitt was more civic minded than most developers of the era. He respected the area’s history where he built communities and retained historical integrity. Levitt’s “Belair At Bowie” community was built on a 1700-acre estate known as “Belair” just south of Bowie proper. There was a 18th century mansion and horse stables to name two assets on the property. He allowed the City of Bowie to annex all that land, which helped the city’s tax base with more than 9,000 homes built in nine years. Levitt sold the Belair estate to the City of Bowie for one dollar in 1964, which became historical museum. What’s more, Bowie, Maryland was the fastest growing community in the United States in 1966.
An unpleasant sidebar to this history lesson was the policies of real estate developers at the time – including Levitt & Sons. Blacks were not permitted to buy homes in the Belair community in the 1960s. Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it wasn’t until 1968 when Levitt & Sons, then owned by ITT, dropped this policy. Today, Belair At Bowie remains a racially diverse community with robust real estate prices.
I remember the excitement of a new home – the aroma of oil-based paint and building materials gassing off. Not good for your health but we took a deep breath anyway. In due course, the smell of a new home wore off along with the magic.
Proof everything new becomes old again.
I remember the thrill of moving into a new Levitt home in 1965. It was a traditional Levitt Cape Cod and I had my own room upstairs away from everyone and everything. What made it particularly exciting was it was Christmastime in a new home, and it doesn’t get more magical than that. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” aired for the first time that December.
It was an exciting time to be a kid.
Of course, the years passed, I became a man, entered the military, and moved on with a life of my own. Decades passed and my hometown became a distant memory. Life has done that to a lot of us who remember a different time and the innocence of the place where we grew up.
I returned to my hometown a few years back and it reminded me of older communities located closer to Washington along the District Line. Those pre-war neighborhoods looked so “old” to me when I was growing up. When I returned to Belair, it affected me the same way. Belair had grown old.
Isn’t it remarkable the way the passage of time affects each of us?
4 thoughts on “Everything New Is Old Again…”
Trying to file down electric box “slugs” because the urban legend was they looked like quarters to a Coke machine. Collecting cast off bits of construction funk for no reason. My parents’ house was brand new in ’56 and I remember my mother wanted a builtin bookshelf on the wall that separated the living room from the hall like she’d seen in another new build and the builder, my dad and some crew went over, pulled the bookshelf out of the wall, brought it back and plugged it in for my mom. Later my dad would add a good sized room and fireplace to the back. I thought it was weird to have one wall of the house brick, but now I see dad was ahead of his time. I also remember the day when central air conditioning was hooked up to the existing central heat vents. It was 105 in Oklahoma City that day and laid on the floor with my face in the vent.
Going home to the old digs is exactly that. The Old Digs. Everything was so much smaller than I remembered. The “big” church where we rode our Stingrays off the roof into a giant sand pile was no larger than a couple of single wides in an L.
It is remarkable how big things looked as a child and how small they appear today. My staircase today in a home built in 2000 is easier to climb than the steeper Levitt staircase from back in the day. It’s like climbing a ladder.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Today’s stairs are probably wider as well. And closets? Back then you had to get into mansion territory to have decent closets. And the very early postwar stuff was like one of those three bedrooms in 800 square feet IKEA displays.
Very true Phil. When I’ve climbed staircases in my hometown, they are steeper – like climbing a ladder.