On Thursday, May 20, conference participants will attend a lunch at Bowie's Belair Mansion before touring Levitt constructed homes. The City of Bowie is seeking residents who are willing to open up their Levitt homes for the tours. Read this press release on the City of Bowie Web site for more information.
The conference coincides with the 50th anniversary of the founding of Belair at Bowie. Levitt & Sons opened the Belair at Bowie model homes on Sussex Lane on October 8, 1960. According to Pam Williams, the City of Bowie Manager of Historic Properties and Museums, the City of Bowie Heritage Committee is planning events for the anniversary - including an oral history project.
I've heard many stories from my father in-law about the early days of Belair at Bowie. I've heard most more than once! I asked him to share a few of his stories for this blog, and this is what he wrote.
Ed and Mary Conroy claimed to be the first residents of the Belair development on October 12, 1961. Ed of course was politically minded and was the first president of the Belair Citizens Association and the following year was elected to the MD House of Delegates. A guy named Frank Crown disputed the Conroy claim for years saying that while the Conroys were taking pictures he and his first wife actually moved in. Who knows?
The model homes were on Sussex Lane. We were visitors in the first couple of weeks after they opened in 1960. We did not put our money down until Thanksgiving week, 1962 when Levitt lowered the price on the Cape from $15,990 to $14,990. Our first monthly payment was $101 (principal, interest, tax and insurance).
Levitt had a little slump in 1962 prompted by counter attacks from PG Realtors alleging poor construction and some scare stories in the Washington press about high utility costs. Leo Green actually got a Cape for $13,990 on Kemmerton Lane. They were having trouble selling homes near Route 50.
In fact the buyers in Somerset and Buckingham bought sight unseen, just a model and a map location. We actually saw our finished house as Levitt had an inventory of unsold homes and we drove around Kenilworth. We chose a pink Cape because I wanted a house where the back yard was shaded in the afternoon. A few years down the road when it came time to repaint I was concerned about the restrictive clause in the deed that said we had to have Levitt's permission to change the color. I called Don Westcott and asked how I went about getting permission. He asked what color our house was. When I told him it was pink, he said if I were willing to change the color to something sensible he would get Bill Levitt to wield a paint brush.
I recently took pictures of the former model homes on Sussex Lane that my father in-law referred to in his story.
The Cape Cod is the lowest end model, and it originally sold for $15,900. Four bedrooms are squeezed into this house. Like all Levitt houses in Bowie, this house has no basement. Other Cape Cod models feature a single large living room window instead of the double windows shown here. My father in-law recollects that Levitt & Sons placed smaller than usual furniture in these model homes to make the homes seem larger than they were.
The Rancher is a single story "L" shaped house featuring three bedrooms and an original price tag of $16,500. Levitt & Sons later introduced a larger Rancher model known as the Devon.
This house is referred to as a 3-Bedroom Colonial. True to its name, it features three bedrooms, and it originally sold for $17,900. The garage must have been expanded to accommodate a second bay because the original home would only have had a single car garage.
$18,500 in 1960 could buy you this 4-Bedroom Colonial. The living room fireplace (see chimney on the left) was not original equipment. This house features a common customization found in many Bowie Levitt houses - a garage conversion. Converting a garage into an office, bedroom or family room is a relatively cheap way of adding living space, and this type of customization is common because Levitt houses don't have basements. Additions are also commonly found on Levitt houses.
The well-to-do Bowie residents might have purchased a Country Clubber for $24,900. This was the top of the line model offered by Levitt & Sons in Bowie. Original models in the Somerset and Buckingham sections were built with four bedrooms. Later models in the Long Ridge section featured five bedrooms. The fireplace in this house was original equipment. To insulate Country Clubber owners from the riffraff in the neighborhood, there is not a single Country Clubber that was built next door to the lowest end Levitt model - the Cape Cod. In fact, Levitt & Sons created the Long Ridge section in 1964-1965 featuring only Country Clubbers.
This large colonial style house is known as a Manor House. It's a little hard to see with the trees, but there are four pillars on the front of this house. This is a one-of-a-kind house in Bowie. It may be possible that Levitt & Sons never received any orders for a Manor House, or maybe they decide not to build any more due to some other reason.
This is another one-of-a-kind Levitt house in Bowie. It sits on the corner of Sussex Lane and Stoneybrook Drive. I'm not sure what this model is called.
The City of Bowie Museums offer reproduction Levitt & Sons Belair at Bowie brochures for $4 each at the Belair Mansion and the Old Town Bowie Welcome Center (see front and back cover below). The original brochures were printed in October, 1961 - a full year after the model homes opened on Sussex Lane. Five Levitt models are described, so the decision to not offer the Manor House must have been made by the time the brochure was planned.
You will notice on the cover below that the Country Clubber is not right next to the Cape Cod. A 3-Bedroom Colonial provides a buffer.
According to the brochure, the minimum lot size for a Country Clubber is greater than the minimum lot size for a Cape Cod. Desirable corner lots are priced higher. Here's a quote directly from the brochure.
"A few, especially suitable for doctors or dentists, are priced higher."The brochures offer a neat look back in time.
Part of the Levitt business model was to purchase and completely develop a large tract of land about 20 miles or so from a major metropolitan area. This was the plan in Levittown, NY, Levittown, PA, Levittown, NJ (later named Willingboro) and Belair at Bowie. A large parcel of land allowed several thousand houses to be built. The houses were mass produced in what Levitt called the "reverse assembly line" process where the construction of a house was broken down into 26 steps. Specialists performed each of the 26 steps, and workers were transported from house to house to perform their work. Rather than having workers remain stationary while product moved by on an assembly line, product stayed in one place, and workers moved. Additional details can be seen here in a Levitt Corporation SEC filing.
I had once heard that the residential streets in Bowie at Belair are intentionally curved to provide a traffic calming effect. I'm not sure if that is true or not. Check out this map of the streets in the Kenilworth section.
I came across an unofficial Levitt & Sons reference site that includes some interesting artifacts. Click here to see a picture of the crowds on Sussex Lane on opening day and a related real estate article from the Washington Post.