Thursday, December 10, 2009

Belair at Bowie to Turn 50 - Conference to be Held

When people think of D.C. area architecture, Union Station, the National Cathedral or the National Museum of the American Indian might come to mind. When the Vernacular Architecture Forum holds its annual conference in D.C. next May, the members will be discussing more ordinary architecture like the suburban subdivisions of Belair at Bowie and Greenbelt's New Deal development.

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.

22 comments:

  1. That first house... The Cape Cod? Terrible houses -- bad layout, no living space, no dining room. I could go on and on. Which model do you live in?

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  2. I used to love going around visiting the model houses in all the new neighborhood that were springing up back then. I remember thinking how odd it was that you could see the exact same house model in new developments that were in completely different areas. I guess that was a rather provincial point of view, but I was just a little kid then.

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  3. Cyndy, I didn't live in Bowie when I was young, but there is some interesting history behind these developments. A woman that heads up the city museums here in Bowie just sent me a research paper on our development that was written by people at George Washington University back in 1999. I'm starting to read through it now. Interesting stuff.

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  4. I lived in Bowie as a child from its inception in 1961. Family bought a 4-bedroom colonial in the Somerset section. I would love to read the research paper from GW University. Where can I see that?

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  5. The Leo Green's lived on Keystone, not Kemmerton.

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  6. Anonymous #2, you can get a copy of the GW University research paper by contacting the City of Bowie Museums at museumevents@cityofbowie.org. I have been corresponding with a very helpful person named Pam Williams. She is one of the people that receives e-mails mailed to that address.

    Anonymous #3, My father in-law wrote the bit about the Green family in the post above. I asked about your comment, and he said the following:

    The Greens lived in a Cape on Kemmerton, then a Colonial on Keystone and then they bought a Country Clubber on Belair Drive from Dr Heffner, a dentist.

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  7. Hi - I grew up in Belair long ago in the Chapel Forge section. Been gone from there for a long time. Belair was a fascinating place to watch from its very beginnings as Levitt carved out the trees and built homes. It happened over a period of 10-12 years. Belair was an excellent value for the money. Where else could you buy a four-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath colonial for $17,000? All of these homes had dining rooms, by the way. I remember Leo Green, who was Bowie's mayor when I was growing up there.

    Regardless of what people may think of Levitt's mass production homes, they were a good value and Belair was a wonderful place to grow up.

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  8. Hi Mike,

    I used to deliver pizzas in Bowie, from 1996-2001. I do remember seeing one or two other Manor houses, other than the old model home on Sussex lane. It's been awhile, and my memory's a bit fuzzy now, but I think they were in the S-section.

    This may just be an old wives' tale, but I heard that the reason the Manor house is so rare is that they had problems with the columns sinking into the ground and they'd actually pull loose from the roof overhang, leaving it just hanging out there, unsupported!

    They must have figured out how to fix that though, as the Manor house is a bit more common over in Crofton.

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  9. Anonymous, interesting info. I'll have to look for manor houses in the S section. There is a manor-like house in the Yorktown section, but it's actually a modified 4-bedroom colonial.

    I've been inside some of the houses in Crofton that you described. I think they're smaller than the manor house on Sussex. The manor house on Sussex has six windows across on the second floor (see pic here. The houses in Crofton are more like a modified 4-bedroom colonial (see pic here).

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  10. Wow, all the years I've lived in this area, and I never noticed that about the Crofton houses with the column! So, I wonder if they were just a version of the common 4br/2.5ba colonial, with a more impressive facade?

    The next time I have some free time on my hands, I'll have to drive up through the S-section and see if I can find that Manor house. Looking back, it's possible that it was just modified colonial, as well. Maybe that's a sign that I have too much time on my hands, but that kind of stuff fascinates me!

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  11. Edit...I just looked on Bing and then Google maps, and found that house I was thinking of. Turns out it's just the regular colonial with columns added. It's on Shadow Lane, right across from where Shield Lane intersects.

    So, I guess that Manor house was just an elusive one-off design, then?

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  12. Click here to see the modified colonial in the Yorkstown section. If I remember correctly, my father in-law claims that six orders were taken for Manor houses in Bowie, but he doesn't recall why they weren't built. They were much more expensive than the capes, and he theorized that the people buying Manor houses had second thoughts, and that they didn't want to live next to the people that would buy the capes. A Manor house was more than twice the cost of a cape.

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  13. There is at least one more model that you have not listed here. They look kind of like your last odd-ball, but not entirely. There are several in the Rockledge section. To see one take a look at this Google StreetView: http://tinyurl.com/272mmsy

    Actually, as I look at them more, I think they may be the same model, with your example having a small addition.

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  14. Loximuithal, Interesting. I rarely drive through the Rockledge section, and I never noticed that model there. I'll have to check it out. Houses on Round Tree would have been built in 1967 - toward the end of the development of the original Levitt sections. I think the Pointer Ridge section wasn't developed until the early 70s, and there are definitely some different models in Pointer Ridge than the ones on Sussex.

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  15. I grew up in the "M" section (from 1964 to 1975.) When I tell my daughter how about the entire town was made up of thousands of the same models of houses over and over again, she can't get over how bizarre that is. I told her how interesting it was to go into your friends' or neighbors' houses that were the same as yours and see how they had made it seem different inside. As for the construction quality, I remember my mother saying they were REALLY poorly made and there were lots of problems.

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  16. I moved into a Cape Code in 2000, over the years I have totally renovated the house, kitchen, and both bathrooms! Luckily I had great friends that did the work. After 10 years we finally remodeled the upstairs bathroom. We were really amazed that the floor tile was laid on concrete. It was a mess to pull up, considering it was the original tile. The reason I know that is because other friends that live in Cape Codes had the same style tile and the hidious powder blue tub and sink and toilet. Everytime I remodel something in this house there is always a problem, crooked walls, etc...but no more renovations....thank goddness!

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  17. Levitt should be strung up by his toes! What a rip off...I am from Ohio and married a live and die Bowie resident (he is mental). Getting divorced and now I am stuck in this crappy house. Bad layout, lousy heating system, crappy plumbing, small electric oven...I'd set it on fire if I could.

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  18. For all the complaints over "poor" Levitt quality, Belair homes have good bones. These homes have held up well for a half century. And for the money 50 years ago, they were a great bargain for anyone hoping to buy a home. They were an affordable means to the American dream and an excellent investment for those who stayed.
    Do the math - $15,000 in 1961. Today $250,000 and higher. Not bad...

    I've lived in mass production homes all over the country since growing up in Belair. Trust me - there's a lot worse stuff you could live in and I've been there. Aluminum wiring, no insulation, noisy plumbing, split drywall, cracked foundations, and more. Poor dimensions and substandard building materials are typical of mass production homes anywhere. This is why these homes were $15,000 instead of $25,000. They put them up in a hurry using anyone who could drive a nail or hang a cabinet. There were flaws. Yet Levitt's people corrected these problems under warranty. Customer service was excellent and personnel were kind.

    If you want perfection - build a custom home. And based on what I've seen, custom homes cost more and have all the same issues as Levitt's Belair. They suffer from all of the same kind of building flaws.

    Levitt's Belair was a wonderful, safe place to grow up. What you have today in a Levitt house is a 50 year old home. It's an OLD house that has been standing there for a half century. If there are issues, I am not surprised. I will always love my hometown and the homes that made it what it is today. The Cape Cod remains my favorite.

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  19. Since most of the Levitt homes were built in the 1960's, has anyone had asbestos findings in them?

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  20. does anybody know where to get a set of blueprints for a rancher in bowie, it is a levitt. I cant find prints anywhere. I will pay!

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