Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Original Suburban American House

This post is dedicated to one of the most important structures in the entire United States. In a way, the numbing banality of what's in these photographs should, ironically, make it less shocking that I say that. In other words, saying that this is the most important structure in the United States is too easy, and also could be easily debated. It would be a rather interesting debate, in fact.

But the subject of this post is possibly among the top ten most important buildings in the country for the very reason that it looks like nothing, or...everything. It's the last remaining unaltered Cape Cod House in Levittown, Long Island. It was financed by Abraham Levitt, designed by his son Alfred Levitt, and built and sold by Abe's other son William Levitt. It was likely completed around 1947 or 1948. Alfred had actually apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright, although whether that stamp of legitimacy would stick to this is questionable.

In order to explain why this utterly forgettable little house is so terribly important, I'd like to tell a story, beginning with an imaginary person named John Smith.  

John is born to a Polish father and Italian mother on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1923, when "John" is the most popular American name for baby boys. He barely remembers the crash of the stock market, being only six years old at the time. But the initial panic could be felt by just about everyone, at any age. From that point onward, the slow, excruciating advance of sadness, desperation, frustration, and anger among the adults around him becomes a part of his daily life. Dealing so much with the failing economy robs his childhood of many of its innocent joys. While his parents insist on keeping him in school, most of his free time is spent working at a local cleaners to bring in whatever miniscule coins he can to help his family keep food on the table.

Following a brief romantic career of sordid hand-holding and a few stolen kisses, John meets a girl who makes him positively flip his wig. Her name is Mary--the most popular name for girls his age, seventeen. He'd known her from the neighborhood, but they start going steady. A sinister rumble can be faintly heard from that far off, distant land called "Europe." But here the new cars and trains are shiny and streamlined, this guy called Buckminster Fuller is doing some wacky new stuff, all the new technology is terribly exciting. Women are joining the work force like never before. The Works Progress Administration has a whole lot of projects running; John's uncle is working on one of them, paving roads. There's a light appearing at the end of the Depression Tunnel. Things look hopeful for John and Mary, their young love affair blossoming.

Then, at the tender age of eighteen and still his mama's boy, John is drafted into the war and shipped off to France. At first, he's mostly so terrified all the time that his adrenaline-soaked brain simply goes onto autopilot. As time goes by, his shell hardens and he learns to cope with the horrors of every new day. Thinking about his home life is a powerful coping mechanism, a "safe place." As the real memories of struggling through the Great Depression fade, they're slowly replaced by an idealized version of what home life had been like, full of hot apple pies, stick-ball on the street on late summer afternoons, and mom's hugs. Sitting in a trench freezing and crusted with mud, one bombshell away from having no arms or legs, it's a version much more comforting than the real memories were.

Growing into his early-twenties, he gets more used to the mature but crass conversations about love and sex, girls and women with his fellow soldiers (some of them older and wiser). A nervous trip to a French brothel awkwardly shoves him one step further into adulthood. Mary writes him at least once a week like always, but their correspondence has matured accordingly. She tells him about her work at the factory making wheel struts for bomber planes and the girls she's befriended there. She tells him the neighborhood gossip and which boys have come home wounded. She ends every letter with "I'm true to you always and count the days until you return home."

As the war appears to be nearing its bloody conclusion, slowly the figure of Mom in John's fantasy home life becomes replaced by Mary. He's no longer looking back to his past life in the States, but toward the future he'll find when he goes home again. Aside from that appearance by Betty Grable at the United Service Organization show--leading to the Military Masturbation Epidemic of April 1944--John thinks only of Mary. Increasingly, the only thing keeping him going--keeping him alive, even--is thoughts of her and the tears of joy she'll shed when he first throws his arms around her. After one uncommonly honest and sincere conversation with a close army buddy about their sweethearts back in the States, John decides that as soon as he's again on home soil, he is going to ask Mary to marry him.

Finally, V-Day. On the one hand, John is now an adult man with the cruel, real-life experiences of someone twice his age. He's killed. He's been forced to be self-sufficient both practically and emotionally. He's endured hunger and cold and hardships he never could have imagined. On the other hand, and in a way because this has been his way of life for the past four years, he's still just a child. The time normally spent to smoothly, healthily grow into adulthood has been completely arrested by the war. Behind his sometimes cold, steely eyes and manly, stoic, hardened demeanor lies the heart of a fragile, hopeful, idealistic little boy.

Mary looks different, but more beautiful than ever. She says "YES!" A year later, they're hitched. A few months after that, she's in the family way. The Lower East Side is appearing to be less and less a place one would want to raise a child. There are few trees and practically no grass. It's dirty, smelly, and dangerous. The schools are not great. "If we're going to set up house and home," Mary says, "we should do it right."

They buy this little house in Levittown, Long Island for around $8000. It's got a yard with real grass. It's a nice, friendly neighborhood where everyone looks like everyone else (white) and everyone knows everyone else. Not only do all the people look the same, but all their houses look the same. It's the very portrait of conformity, normality, consistency, and safety, and in sharp contrast to the sudden deployment of an army regiment in a firestorm of whizzing bullets, whistling bombshells, and growling German tanks.

Floor plan courtesy of Peter Bacon Hales
A sign of how childlike and idealistic this picture was is to be found in the architectural character of the house. If you asked a three-year-old to draw a picture of a house, this is exactly what she or he would give you. The cute little chimney sticking up out of the middle of the pitched roof, the door in the middle with a window on each side, the teeny-tiny little lantern fixture above the door--it's almost like a cartoon simplification of a real house. The odd little rectangular frames just under the roof line appear to have been additional windows. Although it would be difficult to argue the benefit of more light, and they must have been great for regulating temperature, most of the houses have them boarded over. It's possible they were difficult to keep clean and/ or wouldn't accommodate screens.

To put the $8000 price tag into perspective, one of the most expensive regular-production automobiles, the Cadillac Coupe DeVille convertible, sold for just under $3500 in 1949. The Levitts were able to drastically reduce costs by employing techniques used to build barracks during the war. The houses were built as if on an assembly line, so characteristic of U.S. industry. Sadly, the provision that no Levittown house could be owned or occupied by a person of color was written (IN UPPERCASE, no less) right into the lease.

This IS Leave it to Beaver. This IS The Donna Reed Show. No country in the world has suburbs like the United States. Certainly it would never have been possible at this time in the economic devastation and war-torn land surrounding Europe's great cities, where nazi occupation was felt so much more acutely, not to mention the psychological repercussions of entire families murdered off and orphaned children everywhere. And no American city has suburbs like New York. The flight out of urban centers was endemic, but New York was and is the largest urban center from which to fly. Here it was also exacerbated by Robert Moses, who made the suburban exodus not only easier, but virtually unstoppable.

The house shown here, the Ranch House, is right around the corner from the unaltered Cape Cod. It's extremely close to being intact. According to the person I spoke to at the Levittown Historical Society, the kitchens were extremely small, so almost immediately, most of them had extensions added to double the size of their kitchens. This Levittown Ranch has an extension at the rear on the left (likely expanding the living room) and a covered porch on the right. The man who rents it with his wife and kids said of altering what was an almost intact original house, "I need a home, not a museum."

Yes, I know one can make the suburb argument easily for Los Angeles. But L.A. is one big suburb. L.A. really has no urban to subordinate the suburban. New York in 1950 far better characterizes the true American urban/ suburban dichotomy because of the fact that the city is still vibrant, crowded, commercial, fast-paced, dirty, smoky, and diverse. Its suburbs therefore can truly be its opposite: quiet, sparsely populated, leisurely, clean, pastoral, and demographically homogeneous. John and his (male) neighbors work in New York City. They settle in Levittown.

In 1949, John and Mary's first daughter is born and named the most common name for baby girls in that year (strangely), Linda. Her brother would be named James.

Over the first seven or eight years of Linda's life, a new paradigm of American society is firmly cemented into place. Morals, protocol, ethics, manners, fashions, gender and race relations, child-rearing practices, the nature of marriage, everything becomes codified, agreed upon by a new white suburban middle-class. Commercial consumption of highly branded products becomes synonymous with personal identity to be manipulated by media, advertising, and the television and automobile culture. It's a naïve, idealized, at times almost Victorian simulation of what Community is supposed to be. These communities created the myth of the American Dream (which does not exist, by the way, for any readers who have never been here for any extended period of time). This house is the very epicenter of the American Dream's emergence.

The first cracks in the pretty picture start to show in 1955. The Douglas Sirk melodrama All That Heaven Allows, Picnic, Rebel Without a Cause, and The Seven Year Itch and public consciousness of the marital problem its title describe all appear in 1955. Even The Trouble With Harry from that year would seem an apt metaphor for the ways that a community's dark, scandalous truths are hidden beneath a thin pretense of conservative social conventions.

John's secretary is possibly too flirtatious for his mid-life crisis to withstand. Mary, alone all day and under the influence of "mother's little helper," might find the new young, fit mailman's smile a bit too irresistible. But outward appearances usurp anything else in the white middle-class suburb, because its foundation had rested so heavily on appearances from the very beginning. "They seemed so happy--the perfect family, really," friends would later say of John and Mary Smith.

By the time Linda reaches her eighteenth birthday in 1966, the world is an entirely different place. It's no longer possible to ignore hard reality like her parents had. First of all, the world is just moving far too fast. And why would you want to, anyway? There's about to be an exhiliarating revolution in science and technology, plastics and chemistry, information processing, space travel, medicine, and of course society, itself. What's more, it would be entirely irresponsible to ignore it and not try to change it, as she and her friends discuss more and more, considering the way their parents messed everything up.

Fueling the fires, they're at the age where all people in any era must, for their own growth and development, question and reject what they've been brought up to believe. They have to forge their own way. For the first time in history, the millions of them are becoming a very real demographic, identified (mostly by marketing executives bent on exploiting it for profit) as a "youth culture." Linda and her parents can barely understand one another anymore. Linda, at least, is losing interest in trying to make them understand.

The Levittowns of this country--John and Mary's white middle-class suburban American Dream of the 1950s--had been the soil. Into that soil was planted a new generation, Linda's, which began to bear fruit around 1967. In art, music, film, theater, design, architecture, commerce, technology, politics, religion, philosophy, theoretical methodologies, social mores, gender relations, sexuality, parenting, race relations, the very nature of human identity, the entire western cultural landscape undergoes one of the most important revolutions in human history. From that point forward, some vague moment in 1968 or 1969, nothing would ever be the same again. One look at the upheavals of the early-1970s and we might be tempted to suggest the world that gave birth to the Cape Cod House in Levittown had been completely turned upside-down.

Looked at in this way, this charming little house represents so much more than it could ever hope to handle. In some bizarre way, I consider it a monument in the strictest sense to some elusive quality instrumental to the evolution of our culture. In the interests of completion, Linda's hypothetical son, most commonly named Michael in the early 1970s, is of the generation that produced writers like myself who would write about the last unaltered Levittown house in these terms. Obviously, I didn't live through any of the events described here. My perspective is a chronologically outsider's one. Social anthropologists live their subjects, however, historians very seldom do.

All text and images ©2011, Ryan Witte except where noted.


Unknown said...

This was very similar to the bungalow I grew up in. LR, 2 BR, 1 BA, full basement, eat in kitchen. Looked the same on the outside. 1 car separate garage, tiny closets,coal then later gas furnace. Was in Columbus,IN. I was Linda and all you said about her was true. Very descriptive of real history. I enjoyed reading this, first attracted to the picture, so much like my childhood home.

Ryan Witte said...

Thanks for your comment. I'm pleased to know I was able to capture a moment in time with some degree of accuracy.