County's Housing Built on Foundation of History

Most of the Levitt homes in Bowie were built in the Cape Cod or ranch style.
Most of the Levitt homes in Bowie were built in the Cape Cod or ranch style. (Courtesy Of City Of Bowie Museums)
By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 26, 2007

They are two of Prince George's County's best-known communities -- President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Greenbelt Homes and Levittown in Bowie -- gems that conjure images of another time nestled in the middle of areas bustling with development.

The Great Depression was at its low point in the 1930s when Roosevelt decided to create three planned communities as part of his New Deal initiative. They were to provide affordable housing, employment opportunities and promise in a country still reeling from the 1929 stock market crash. The Roosevelt administration chose sites in Wisconsin, Ohio and Maryland, in what is now Greenbelt, and the federal government began construction of 1,600 townhouses and detached residences, which remain the heart of the city today.

Bowie's housing history is dominated by nearly 9,000 houses built in the 1960s by William J. Levitt, the father of modern suburbia. Though modest by today's standard of amenities, the value of these vintage residences has increased exponentially as the Prince George's housing market has boomed in recent years.

The Levitt development in Bowie offered four basic models, all built on slabs as part of the assembly-line construction that made Levittowns everywhere quick to complete and more affordable to buy.

When the Levitt master plan was drawn up for nearly 2,000 acres of the former Belair plantation, the land was divided into 21 sections. Streets were named according to the first letter of the corresponding community. Thus, in the Kenilworth section, near what is now Bowie Town Center, streets bear names such as Kensington Lane and Kenhill Lane.

Today, both Greenbelt and Bowie, as well as some of Prince George's other older communities, are surrounded by new construction. Developments of condominium apartments, townhouses and single-family residences, many of them estate homes and mansions, have been built in virtually every part of the county -- evidence of an economy that is transforming Prince George's from a bedroom community of the District to a bustling jurisdiction unto its own.

While the New Deal homes of Greenbelt still have their place in the county's history, they share billing with new houses constructed by such nationally known builders as Ryan, Winchester and NV Homes. Some of the newer housing is modest in size, but there are also grand houses with extravagant square footage and amenities to match.

Melinda McMullin prefers the old Roosevelt community.

"It's a wonderful planned community," said McMullin, who moved to Greenbelt in 1987, the year the community celebrated its 50th anniversary. "You never have to cross the street, because all the neighborhoods are attached by sidewalks. There are green spaces, playgrounds in every cul-de-sac, and everything is within walking distance."

Sidewalks link the Levitt houses, too. Most of them were built in a Cape Cod or ranch style. Like the famous Levittown of the 1940s in New York, Bowie's houses were priced within the reach of young families. The Levittown concept didn't stop at houses. The planned community grew to include several schools, recreational amenities and shopping areas.

Former Maryland state senator and Bowie mayor Leo E. Green moved to the Levitt section of Bowie with his family in 1962, when he was attending Georgetown University's law school and working as a law clerk for the U.S. Post Office Department. Like other young couples, he and his wife, Alhen, were looking for a suburban lifestyle for their growing family. They heard about the Levitt homes and headed to Bowie but found that the $15,500 asking price was too much for them.

"I couldn't afford it until the developer dropped the price by $1,000. Then we could qualify," he said.

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