Monday, July 20, 2009

Speckled Paint

I live in one of the Levitt sections of Bowie, Maryland. For those of you who aren't familiar, that means that my house was built on what was once a colonial plantation known as Belair Estate that contained a horse stable known as Belair Stud and Stable. The stable was world renown, and it produced two Triple Crown winners (father and son Gallant Fox and Omaha) as well as Nashua, the first horse to be sold for more than $1 million. Belair Estate was sold in 1957 to Levitt and Sons, the home builder run by William Levitt - known for developing planned communities in assembly line fashion. Levitt's first planned community was the famous Levittown, New York, followed by Levittown, Pennsylvania, Willingboro, New Jersey and Belair at Bowie, Maryland (later annexed by the City of Bowie).

In order to support assembly line like production of houses, Levitt limited the styles of houses, and common materials were used in all homes. One of the common materials that was used is what residents refer to as speckled paint. I didn't live in Bowie during the early days of the Levitt houses, but I have heard stories about the interior of some houses being painted completely with speckled paint. I've also heard recent stories about original homeowners selling houses that still contained rooms painted with speckled paint.

I had only heard speckled paint stories until I started doing home improvement projects on my Bowie house. This weekend I was working on a room remodeling project that includes replacing existing trim. I found some remaining speckled paint on the underside of the top door jam for the closet. Here it is in the picture below. The speckled paint can be seen on either side of the bi-fold door track.

On the back of some of the trim that I removed, I found a sticker for Hardware City. This wasn't original trim since Levitt and Sons used to make their own.

Before there was Lowes and Home Depot in Bowie, there was Hardware City. Hardware City was more like the hardware stores that I grew up with. When I first moved to Bowie, I tried to go to Hardware City to support the smaller store. The problem was that they rarely had what I needed, and I ended up going to Lowes anyway. I eventually stopped going to Hardware City because it was a waste of time, and they have since closed.

I also founds a 1956D Wheat Penny tucked behind some old trim - perhaps it's been hiding there since the house was built 43 years ago.


  1. You probably didn't realize that the penny in a Levitt house was like a keystone in a bridge. It was there for a reason. Better put it back before your house falls down.

  2. Abbot,

    Ha, good point. If Bill Levitt knew that penny had been dropped there, my guess is that he would have personally come back to pick it up.

    Along with the speckled paint tales, I did hear stories about people falling through shower walls in the early days, and some non Bowie residents claimed that the houses were built out of cardboard. That is almost the case with the sheathing on the house as it is made out of fibre board instead of plywood, which is a better insulator but provides no structural support.

    We had a contractor remodel our kitchen a few years back, and he had good things to say about the quality of the houses compared to some new construction. Levitt was obviously in the business of making money, and I can see places where he tried to save. For one, if a wall isn't a load bearing wall, it's going to be framed with 2x3's instead of 2x4s.

  3. Speckled paint. Now I've heard everything.

  4. L A, I don't think the speckled paint is going to come back into style any time soon. I'll just have to cherish the little that I have left.

  5. Okay folks - I've got to chime in on this one. I am one of Belair At Bowie's original residents - Chapel Forge section - 1965. We had speckled walls - known as spatter paint. Levitt spray painted the walls a flat white, then, they came in with a paint gun that shot gold, grey, and white spatter marks to hide imperfections in drywall. Not much different than the stucco finish you see today. Levitt gave buyers a smoking deal on these homes - well built homes for the money. They were an excellent value. Levitt made it possible for anyone to buy a house as long as you were white prior to 1964. Civil Right Act fixed that problem. We had a nice new home in 1965 - rich wood cabinets in the kitchen, quality GE appliances, good quality overall considering what people paid for them. These homes have held up very well over time. Never heard of anyone falling through a wall. I grew up in Belair - a wonderful community.

  6. Anonymous, Interesting info on how the spattered paint was applied. My in-laws are original Belair at Bowie residents from 1962 - Kenilworth section. The paid $14,900. $500 covered down payment and all closing costs. A monthly payment of $101 covered the mortgage payment, property taxes and mortgage insurance. My father in-law believes that the story about people falling through the walls may have been a tale that evolved from a problem that a resident in the Somerset section had where he filled up his tub for the first time, and the drain wasn't connected. Water rained down in his kitchen.

    The earlier sections South of Route 450 had metal cabinets, and the wood cabinets were used starting in Meadowbrook and Chapel Forge.

    The civil rights issue is certainly a dark spot on the history of the community - and a bit ironic given the current Bowie demographic.

  7. Not sure what you mean by "and a bit ironic given the current Bowie demographic." Bowie is still 80% white.

  8. Anonymous, it depends on what you define as Bowie and what statistics you use. If you use the 2000 census and include only 20715, you're right - 80.5% white. If you include all people within the incorporated city limits of Bowie in 2000, it is less than 63% white.

    And you have to consider what's happened in the nine years since the last census. A housing boom occurred where most new houses in Bowie are now black owned. In my older Levitt neighborhood, I can think of at least 10 houses where the demographics switched from white to black since 2000, and I can't think of one that went the other way. A 2008 estimate used by the City of Bowie estimates that 20715 is now 72% white and 18.7% black - see the PDF . Blacks represent 12.3% of the population nationally, so 18.7% for 20715 is 50% higher than the national average. Considering that blacks were kept from buying houses in 20715 47 years ago, I do consider that irony.

  9. Hey I stay in the Kenilworth section and I wanted to know if anyone knows what the master bedroom shower base is made of? I stay in a 4 bedroom colonial. Please email me Thank you

  10. We rented in the Buckingham section in the 70s, a lowly cape cod. I remember the metal cabinets, coffee can light fixtures ( with small beauty holes drilled in the side) and all the windows coming equipped with a lebgth of wood to hold the widow up when you wanted them open.