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Levittown and Vicinity

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In one of the fortunate juxtapositions that make Bucks County so remarkable, a trip to elite and singular Andalusia ( BU2) can be followed almost immediately by the mass-housing model of the twentieth century—Levittown. The post–World War II demand for housing was met by New York City–based developer and builder William Levitt, who saw the potential of the connection between the new national highway system and working-class houses at a nearly urban scale and who understood the value of branding by using his name for his villages. Levitt's first Levittown, on Long Island, begun in 1947, was a smash hit. His second, begun in 1951 in Bucks County, was built just to the north of the projected route of the extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-276) to connect with New Jersey.

By building modest houses in planned communities designed around shared village greens, a scheme derived from Radburn, New Jersey, and containing schools, playgrounds, public pools, and other amenities, Levitt applied mass production techniques gained building U.S. Navy housing during World War II to imaginatively transform the regional housing market. This enabled the Levitt organization to build with remarkable economy that in turn permitted numerous luxuries, including fully electric kitchens and attached carports. Recognizing that the kitchen-centered house remained a norm for working-class families, the Levitt designers made the kitchen a principal point of entrance and living space, recalling the historic hall-and-parlor plans of the region's working-class houses of two centuries before. More than half a century later, Levittown is remarkable for the variety of strategies that individual families have used to reshape the basic Levitt models. Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi, and Steven Izenour analyzed the evolution of buildings to accommodate individual personality in their Learning from Levittown studio at Yale University in 1970.

Levittown initiated the major shift to automobile-centered urbanism that became lower Bucks County's regional character in the twentieth century. Unlike the first Levittown on Long Island that relied on small neighborhood commercial strips, Levittown's planners based their plan on a one-mile grid suburb subdivided by major avenues that connect to the larger regional highways. A regional shopping center on U.S. 13 was part of the original plan, but that complex was soon trumped by the even larger Oxford Valley Mall to the west adjacent to the extension of I-95. Levitt's original shopping center was demolished in 2002. Unfortunately, the Levitt organization did not adequately understand the significance of local governing boundaries in Pennsylvania. Here they assembled properties that spanned four townships, causing time-consuming separate negotiations at every level of the planning process. Each of Levittown's schools is in a different district, undercutting what might have been a force for unifying the community. Levittown's four quadrants are divided by parkways, with institutions, mainly churches, located along the parkways and schools and recreational facilities placed in central greens.

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas

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