A home of one's own
by Cait Murphy, FORTUNE Magazine

(FORTUNE Magazine) - First came the trucks. Every 100 feet, they would dump precisely bundled packages of lumber, piping, and other building supplies, then pour a concrete slab foundation.

Then came the men. Working in teams of two or three in a precise, 26-step choreography, the framers, the painters, the installers, the electricians, and so on would do their assigned task - and move on to the next home, over and over. At the peak of production, the building teams could complete 36 homes a day. The result was Levittown, N.Y., America's first mass-produced suburb. Henry Ford, who died a few months before ground was broken, would have appreciated the simple genius of this reverse assembly line. In Levittown, it was the workers who moved, not the product.

From 1947 to 1951, the Levitt family built 17,500 houses in this, their first eponymous community (others would follow). A typical ranch cost $7,990. Simple to a fault, the homes were widely ridiculed for their cookie-cutter spareness. Architectural critic Lewis Mumford declared the community an "incipient slum." But the houses were better than living cheek by jowl with the in-laws in the Bronx, and the target market - white, not-quite-middle-class returning vets - loved 'em. On one August day in 1949, sales reps sold 650 houses in five hours.

Levittown pioneered building techniques that are now standard - and helped to bring the American dream of home ownership within reach of thousands of people of modest means. And no, it never became a slum. Top of page