Recalling the post-war 'utopia' that was Levittown
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Developer William Levitt created what he thought was "utopia" for the veterans of World War II as he used his wealth to buy farmland in Bucks County, N.Y. and turn it into affordable suburban living with simple homes, schools, and parks.
"It was wonderful," said Army veteran Albert Wargo, who in 1956 bought his slice of the American Dream with his wife, June, both 88. Now married 65 years and living in North Wales near their three children, the two returned Sunday to Levittown to participate in the community's 60th anniversary and offer an oral history.
"She made a wonderful home," Wargo said, his wife at his side, recalling how she loved to landscape with flowers around their two-story home, known then as the Jubilee, one of the moderate models that sold for $11,250 with all new appliances. The couple were among dozens of others who gave tape-recorded statements, recalling the early years of Levittown.
Local historians organized the anniversary celebration to raise funds for preservation of the historic Bolton Mansion, once destined for demolition in the 1970s after the municipal offices vacated the stone structure for a new complex. Historians plan to convert a second building into a museum and educational center.
"It fell into terrible disrepair," said Rich Wagner, who organized the weekend celebration with his wife, Amy Duckett Wagner. "It was going to be bulldozed."
The Wagners offered a staggering history of the grounds in Levittown's Holly Hill section as local bands played to a steady stream of visitors. She authored Levittown, a history of the community; he compiled an extensive collection of photos and memorabilia. They both grew up in Levittown and are members of the Friends of Bolton Mansion, which is raising restoration money and seeking to have the building recognized as a historic landmark.
"It's one of the most significant buildings in Pennsylvania history," Wagner said as he noted the property once had been owned by Phineas Pemberton, who helped author the Pennsylvania Constitution with his close associate, the powerful William Penn.
The Wagners realized there was a strong interest in Levittown after creating the website www.levittowners.com.
Historians believe Bolton Mansion was built in the late 1600s on a plantation. The four-story colonial house has at least 12 rooms, many with fireplaces, a wrap-around porch, and a grand foyer.
Much of the exterior has been restored, while inside exposed second-story joists span the first-floor ceilings. Walls, under construction, display original brick and mortar. The Wagners estimate it will take more than $3 million and at least three years to complete the preservation and landscaping.
It is a stark contrast to the community of then-modern suburban houses that spans Falls, Bristol, and Middletown Townships.
In 1952, the Levitt family amassed land from farmers to create what is now known as possibly the first modern American suburb. Levitt and Sons became known for their quick construction of partially prefab houses in a community close to the Delaware River. The Levitts consulted with architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
The development was planned with parks, schools, and community pools, and included more than 17,300 houses built in seven years, said Amy Duckett Wagner. They were built with veterans in mind, who returned from World War II to find a shortage of affordable homes. The Rancher sold for less than $9,000 and the Country Clubber for $17,990 if it was a corner unit.