This week’s guest blogger is the ever-philosophical Aaron Lubeck, housing consultant and author of Green Restorations: Sustainable Building in Historic Homes. He is currently adjunct faculty at Duke University’s Nicholas School for the Environment. Aaron is an advocate for preserving whenever possible, but discusses what many in the preservation field now wrestle with–just because an older building may be worth preserving for environmental reasons, is it necessarily landmark-worthy? Do mass-produced buildings actually contradict popular preservation philosophy? This is where historic preservation gets pretty sticky.
The Case Against Levittown’s Inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places
by Aaron Lubeck
When William Levitt completed his first assembly-line house in 1947 no one knew how much the man would forever alter the face of America. At the height of his reign his company completed a house every 16 minutes. The average builder built 3-4 homes every year; he finished 30-40 every day. Some decry him for creating sprawl and the suburb. I don’t mind that charge so much, as a fast-growing country we were somewhat bound to stretch. For me, it’s the inadvertent consequences resulting from his work that continues to disappoint. Leavitt’s long term effect on the country, as it altered our physical face to the world, I find his work overwhelmingly a net negative.
While all his business achievements are impressive and undeniably transformative, there are cases to be made that Levittown(s) should not be on the National Register. Here are three: First, Levittown is the antitheses of early 20th century design, arguably American architecture’s heyday, where individual homeowners’ identities were efficaciously linked to their homes. Levitt’s methods, then, endangered this freshly-minted cornerstone of American individualism. Richard Lacayo of Time described the contrast well: “The home was an ancient possession, a thing too intimate to be mass-produced without offending notions of Yankee individuality that were already under intense pressure from modernity”. Pre-1940, even in working class homes, individuality or local character is ever-present. But the cookie-cutter tract home craze Levitt pioneered represented conformity, central planned. Isn’t it ironic that the Levittowns were built at the height of the Cold War, when you’d expect objection to this method to be more present? Pent-up demand from a lost decade and expansive federal financing from GI bills (the first no down-payment loans) primed the pump for his growth, so arguably Uncle Sam was the more guilty party and Levitt was just following orders. After all, who had the time to build custom with all that cash-soaked demand about?
Second, Levittown represented the first major conflicts of interest disconnect between the housing decision maker (designer|builder) and ultimate beneficiary (the homeowner) in what Energy Secretary Stephen Chu habitually refers to as ‘principle agent’ and ‘split incentives’ issues, phenomenons that ultimately put a downward pressure on quality.
Third, when low-cost production methods arrived, authenticity departed. Customization is a crucial component of the National Register. To be historic things must first be unique. That’s a fairly low bar to jump over, but Levittown’s houses fails to do it. In his book Why Architecture Matters, Paul Goldberger writes “architecture is the ultimate representation of a culture, even more so than its flag”, a statement that holds true in all eras, for better or worse: If Louis Sullivan’s ambitious art nouveau vine patterns say ‘We are unique; simultaneously in touch with industry and nature, powerful and innovative”, what do today’s faux grain vinyl siding and false-front Mcmansions say about what it means to be an American? What do the harmonizing boxes on a concrete and treeless landscape say about the US at mid-century?
I accept that one can simultaneously dislike something while appreciating its historic importance. I’ve never quite gravitated to Mies Van Der Rohe’s glass boxes, or the whole modernist movement, which sort of bore me. And I recognize the important business practices of production building that Levitt effectively created or mastered. Perhaps his work is better placed on a list of historic civil engineering landmarks, or in a business school hall of fame. Artistically, it’s a leading example of what happens when you take the pen out of an artist’s hand and let management do the creative.
Levittown’s emphasis on quantity over quality has overtones with housing today. Like many other Americans in tract-build homes, his namesake company Levitt & Sons filed bankruptcy, interestingly, in 2007. The analogy goes further. Perhaps not coincidentally Levitt, too, overextended himself and died broke, saddled with dumb investments.
His factory process, which he described as Detroit-running-in-reverse, signaled the beginning of the end of American architecture; we’ve been building with his methods for seven decades now. The practice of expressing person through personal architecture hasn’t really been practiced since, and the assassination happened that day in New York, 1947. To put his work on the national register is akin to honoring John Wilkes Booth in the Lincoln Memorial. Change history, Mr. Levitt did. Just not for the better. It’s for that reason William Levitt’s contributions do not belong on our National Register of Historic Places.