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How William Levitt Helped to Fulfill the American Dream
William J. Levitt, Long Island's master builder, died Jan. 28 at the age of 86. Following is an excerpt from "The Fifties" by David Halberstam describing how Mr. Levitt revolutionized home building, creating Levittown and making the dream of owning a home a real possibility for thousands of middle-class American families.
OWNING a house came to be the embodiment of the new American dream. As promised by endless Hollywood films, it represented fulfillment, contentment: confident dads, perky moms and glowing children, attending good schools and, later, college. A house brought the American family together. If the first great business figure of the American century was Henry Ford, the second, arguably, was William J. Levitt.
It was Bill Levitt who first brought Ford's techniques of mass production to housing, up to then the most neglected of American industries. Until he arrived on the scene, builders were small-time operators, employing multiple subcontractors. The typical prewar builder put up fewer than five houses a year. Levitt revolutionized the process of home building with remarkable planning and brilliant control procedures. These techniques made it possible to provide inexpensive, attractive single-unit housing for ordinary citizens, people who had never thought of themselves as middle class before. As much as anyone, William Levitt made the American dream possible.
It was the war that taught Levitt the promise of the future and how to reach for it. In 1941, he and his brother, Alfred, won a Government contract to build 2,350 war workers' homes in Norfolk, Va. At first it was a disaster; everything went wrong. Saddled with union workers who, in their view, asked for too much and produced too little, they were unable to make a profit or meet a tight schedule. The Levitt team managers knew they had to change the essential philosophy of home building in order to meet their deadlines. They analyzed the construction process and broke it down into basic components. There were, they figured out, 27 separate steps, so they would train 27 separate teams -- each team would specialize in one step. This solution enabled them not only to find a way around the acute shortage of skilled carpenters -- for it demanded less-talented workers -- but also to speed up the entire process. They also figured out that the traditional method of paying workers hourly wages and overtime was not a good way to maximize production. They carefully studied each job, how to do it well, and how much time it took. Then they figured base salaries according to average schedules and paid extra to those exceeding the norms -- in effect, they were paying for piece work at a high level. This made it possible for the worker to augment his base salary by accomplishing more -- instead of merely working longer. The Levitt team became increasingly expert in mass building.
As for the future, Bill Levitt had no doubts: It consisted of men like himself building mass housing for the families of young veterans, who were going to return overnight to civilian life. "Just beg, borrow or steal the money and then build and build," he kept saying to his friends, about a dozen of whom folowed him into his company. When some talked about the risks involved, he would tell them to examine their own desires and needs. What did they want? A car, and then what else? A house, of course.
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Even before the war, Bill Levitt had taken out an option on 1,000 acres of farmland near Hempstead, Long Island. It was relatively inexpensive, a steal, he thought, and while he was over in the Pacific, he urged his brother, Alfred, to keep up the option. Alfred looked at the Hempstead land and saw a lot of potato farms being cleared for a few houses. Bill Levitt looked at it and saw a gargantuan, virtually self-contained suburban community.
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