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Belair at Bowie

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1960–1970, Levitt and Sons. Roughly bounded by US 50, MD 197, Race Track Rd., and MD 3.

Belair at Bowie stands among Maryland’s most significant suburban residential developments. While deliberately not marketed as a “Levittown,” Belair at Bowie can be considered the fourth and final of these iconic mega-communities constructed by the famed Levitt and Sons firm in the decades following World War II. From the outset, Levitt and Sons conceived of Belair as a smaller scale venture than the Levittowns in New York (1947–1951), Pennsylvania (1952–1957), and New Jersey (1958–1972), all containing roughly 17,000 houses. Belair was initially planned for 4,500 houses and eventually completed with about 7,500. It was constructed on a 2,226-acre tract located well outside and roughly equidistant from Annapolis, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., in then still largely rural Prince George’s County.

As with the Levittowns, the company planned Belair as a “complete” community with precisely located nodes for education, recreation, worship, and shopping. The attention to detail in its design extended to the pattern of model types and house colors along its residential streets. The construction of schools and basic shopping facilities quickly followed the completion of the first houses, but the better part of a decade passed before all of the components of Levitt and Sons’ vision for Belair were in place. Levitt and Sons inaugurated sales at Belair in October 1960 with eight furnished display houses representing the six models planned for the development: two variations each of the Cape Cod and the Rancher, and one each of the three- and four-bedroom options for the Colonial, the Country Clubber, and the Manor House, the last of which was the only one constructed at Belair. Levitt and Sons lined the south side of Sussex Lane with the furnished models, a number that increased to twelve by 1967, creating a sense of Belair’s fully engineered streetscapes. The Washington Post described them in October 1960 as “roomy, basically simple, well-planned, sturdy, and in the Levitt tradition of maximum living space per dollar—minus extras or frills.” Notwithstanding this observation, the houses were comfortably above the national averages for number of rooms and amenities, and incorporated many of the latest trends in domestic design.

The models available at Belair were the same ones designed for new sections of Levittown, New Jersey. The houses were a refined and expanded collection intended to boost sales in New Jersey and allow Belair to compete effectively in the national capital region. The firm had already addressed criticisms of single-model homogeneity in suburban developments by alternating three visually distinct models, each with two facade variations, along every street in New Jersey. This planning strategy was further enhanced after 1960 with additional models that would, as noted in a 1962 sales brochure for Belair, “provide greater variety and a pleasing neighborhood scene.” For the street facades Levitt staff architects utilized neo-traditional and neo-colonial elements they thought would attract middle-class families, a design decision that also reflected the predominant conservatism of the region’s domestic architecture. At Belair, Levitt and Sons employed modern styling only for a variation of the Country Clubber located in the community’s earliest completed sections and for the buildings housing the changing rooms and offices of Belair’s three swimming and tennis clubs. These were all built by the Levitt and Sons but they operated from the beginning as membership-only facilities.

Belair remained a segregated venture for most of its development decade. As with all of its earlier subdivisions, Levitt and Sons restricted sales at Belair to only qualified white buyers. The company had “voluntarily” desegregated Levittown, New Jersey, in 1960 after two years of court cases originating with the 1958 passage of New Jersey’s fair housing law. Nonetheless, for Belair and elsewhere Levitt and Sons did not alter its policies regarding race. For a time, individual builders, building companies, and the industry as a whole sidestepped the issue of segregation in new housing by shifting blame. They claimed that integration was not good for business because the (white) buying public did not accept the idea of investing in and committing to mixed-race neighborhoods. By the time that Levitt and Sons began the construction of Belair, the civil rights movement was entering a period of strong forward momentum and success, and the new community was, unsurprisingly, the focus of periodic protests at its sales center. Despite these actions, it was not until Prince George’s County put in place an open housing law in 1967 and the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968 as part of the Civil Rights Act that compelled Levitt and Sons to abandon restricted sales.

Sections of single-family houses in Belair were constructed in overlapping stages between 1960 and 1968. All of the street names within a given section begin with the same first letter as the section name and are generally the only indicator of location among them. The earliest sections (Somerset, Buckingham, Kenilworth, Foxhill, and Tulip Grove) were completed between 1960 and 1964 on land positioned between the John Hanson Highway (US 50) on the south and the Annapolis Road (MD 450) on the north, extending eastward from Collington Road (MD 197). A linear residential section (Long Ridge, 1964–1965) backs up to Collington Road and is the only fully-completed Levitt section on the west side of the road. Only one section (Heather Hills, 1965) was built south of the John Hanson Highway; it was smaller than the others, but still had its own elementary school because of relative isolation; a pedestrian bridge now provides foot and bike access over the highway. More than half of Belair is situated north of the Annapolis Road and east of Collington Road, extending to the northeast from their intersection. These sections (Meadowbrook, Chapel Forge, Whitehall, Rockledge, Overbrook, Yorktown, Idlewild, and Victoria Heights) were realized between 1964 and 1968 and are filled with the last of Belair’s detached, single-family houses. Belair was planned with a principal commercial node, realized in phases and located on both sides of the Annapolis Road at the community’s eastern boundary. Two groupings of town houses, numbering approximately three-hundred units in total, flank the stores on the north side of MD 450. Known as Belair Town I and Belair Town II, these were built in two campaigns between 1968 and 1970.

References

Jacobs, James A. “Beyond Levittown: The Design and Marketing of Belair at Bowie, Maryland.” In Housing Washington: Two Centuries of Residential Development and Planning in the National Capital Area, edited by Richard Longstreth, 85-109. Chicago: Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, 2010.

Jacobs, James A., “Belair at Bowie, Maryland,” HABS No. MD-1253, Historic American Buildings Survey, 2008. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Jacobs, James A., “Belair Bath and Tennis Club,” HABS No. MD-1265, Historic American Buildings Survey, 2008. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Longstreth, Richard. “The Levitts, Mass-Produced Houses, and Community Planning in the Mid-twentieth Century.” In Second Suburb: Levittown, Pennsylvania, edited by Diane Harris, 123-174. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010.

Writing Credits

Author: 
James A. Jacobs
Coordinator: 
Lisa P. Davidson
Catherine C. Lavoie

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