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Letter: A Question for Bill Levitt

Well hello everybody. My name is Bill. I am the owner and the architect of LevitStyle. My company remodels the homes here in Levittown, the first American suburb built by Bill Levitt some 60+ years ago. I never met Bill Levitt. He passed away in 1994 at the age of 87, but after working exclusively on his houses since 1996 I would like to ask him something.

You see he’s not the first to build a whole town. Americans have been building towns since the Pilgrims. And like the Pilgrims he was quite the American pioneer. Some credit Bill Levitt and Levittown as the beginning of suburbia. Some thought of him as a hack and thought his house was backwards, I mean really, who puts the kitchen in the front of the house? How absurd and quite frankly, crude. Yet maybe Bill was way ahead of his time. Think about it.

Historically, the proper protocol for a home would be to enter in and through the most public rooms and then move progressively through to the more private spaces beyond. Typically this would start with a greeting room, then a room to engage in light conversation, then another elegant room for a meal and at last bring our guests to a lounge area to culminate the social event.

These were the public spaces and the only rooms we allowed our audience to view. Other quarters were to service these “parlors” or provide sleeping accommodations for the residence and not for casual display. The original kitchen was attached to the back of the house, not even in it. This European format became the adopted American social standard. What else did we know?

Then Bill Levitt comes into the picture and he sees an opportunity in the housing market for our WWII vet. He created a new housing prototype; a new American cultural norm and things have never been the same since. So where did the first Levitvillers come from? Let’s put that thought aside for a moment. We’ll get back to it.

You know how it is, let’s say you go to work and you take the same elevator every day, and each day you see the same people, strangers at first but after a while you nod, smile, eventually say hi. You get comfortable, possibly even friendly seeing the same face everyday. You know how it goes.    

You know how it is, let’s say you live in a teeny little apartment in the Bronx, Queens or Brooklyn. You hang out on the front stoop. Your stoop is attached to your neighbor’s stoop and faces another group of stoops across the street. It’s kind of like a porch without the roof. The street becomes your living room, your front yard, and your park. Kids ride their bicycles and play stickball there. Gramps and Aunt Betty, siblings and regular folk from your apartment hang out there. All are welcome because it’s like a public space, shared by all, “Yours, Mine and Ours”. You get the picture; it’s safe and uncomplicated, one and the same, American.    

These are the everyday folk Bill Levitt had in mind. They were the next Americans primed to pioneer his new world. Why, he even had a special deal for our American WWII veterans.

Levitt’s house was casual, clean, simple and efficient. Just right for our American soldier returning from service for his country. The house was unpretentious, cottage like and quaint. Why, even the kitchen and laundry were in the front of the house. This was absolutely perfect for our young vets looking to start a new family. Mom could manage the house from the front kitchen and watch the kids play in the front yard at the same time. With most families spending their time in the front yard rather than the back, folks were more likely to see and make friends with each other. Why, it was just like hanging out on the front stoop back in the old apartments, the best of the city and country in one. Even when Dad came home he would barbecue in the driveway on the side of the kitchen and share a beer with the other dads doing the same thing. Everybody knew everybody again, “Yours, Mine and Ours.”

A lot of people mock our kitchens in the front of the house, yet these days the kitchen has become Americans’ favorite room to hang out in; the most public room in the house, up front where it belongs.

So as I said, I’d like to ask Bill Levitt something, “did you see that coming?”

Bill Mullan