William J. Levitt's Belair at Bowie community began auspiciously in 1960, when five model homes were opened. Thousands of Washington-area residents flocked to see the single houses offered for as little as $14,500.
Belair at Bowie was a boom town for more than a decade. It grew to adjoining areas on both sides of Rte. 50 in Prince George's county, eventually housing some 40,000 residents.
Over the course of two centuries, the Bowie area gave birth to three state governors. In the mid-1950s, a small town of approximately 1,000 people lay about 15 miles east of Washington in the shadow of the nationally renowned Belair Stables, and the splendor and wealth of nearly 2,300 acres known as the Woodward estate surrounded by tobacco farms.
Bowie gave rise to thoroughbred horse racing in this country. Omaha, Gallant Fox and Nashua were among the many moneymaking horses owned and eventually put to stud amid the beeches and birches at Belair.
One October night in 1955 Nashua had just become the second biggest moneymaker in horse racing by winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont. Mr. and Mrs. William Woodward, his owners, were about to retire after a party celebrating the victory at their Oyster Bay mansion on Long Island. Troubled by prowlers for some weeks, William Woodward gave his wife a shotgun to take to her room. "Shoot first. Ask questions later," he told her before going to his own bedroom across the hall.
About 3 a.m., awakened by the barking of her dog, Ann Woodward pumped a shotgun shell into a shadow in the hallway. A few weeks later, the killing of her husband was ruled accidental.
In September 1956, Woodward's executors sent 2,000 real estate brokers an illustrated brochure about the 26-room mansion along with 22 dwellings, 20 barns, a 5-acre pond and 30 wells on "2,280 acres of gently rolling Maryland countryside." Asking price -- $1,250,000.
A New York realty firm, Webb and Knapp, announced a month later it had contracted to buy Belair for $1,187,000. The intent was "to determine its best potential use."
But William J. Levitt, president of Levitt & Sons, blocked the sale by contending he had twice offered $1.5 million for the estate. (Levitt already lived in the Long Island mansion that once belonged to Woodward's mother.)
After a year-long court battle, new bids for the property were accepted. On Aug. 27, 1957, Levitt drove into town, stepped out of his long black limousine and handed over a check for $1,750,000 to the executors. Some sources say Levitt and another bidder offered the same sum -- the outcome decided by the flip of a coin. With that, Levitt took title to a tract that was destined to become one of Maryland's largest cities.
Now the third largest city in the state, Bowie has fulfilled the growth expectations of the Bowie City Council.
The small town along the railroad tracks, now known as the Hungtington section of Belair, was merely three-fourths of a square mile in 1957. Major annexations in 1959, 1963 and 1968, plus several smaller acquisitions, have boosted Bowie to 11.3 square miles.
The first annexation of nearly 4.4 square miles brought in the Belair estate. At that time the town of Bowie was about three miles away.
Based on Levitt's previous experience, he insisted that his new community be wholly contained in one incorporated township. He wanted to avoid the myriad of problems encountered with Levittown, Pa., which covered corners of three counties when it was begun.
Levitt's local attorneys for his new community were Ham Welch and Jiggs Lancaster. After their negotiation with the town council and homeowners along Rte. 197, a 35-foot wide strip of land and the highway became Belair's umbilical cord to Bowie.
Levitt intended to spend nearly $100 million on development in the Bowie area. The people of the old town were excited about the prospect of prosperity promised by Levitt; new schools, shopping, library, churches, recreational facilities, homes at affordable prices and perhaps jobs.
Don Westcott, a Bowie resident since 1964 and formerly Levitt's director of community relations, said the builder's basics included a shopping mall near every section of the development. "At a minimum," Westcott said, "there was a major grocery store, a drug-store and a beauty shop or barber shop -- and often a liquor store.
"A homeowner association was a must. In fact, the first purchaser in every one of Levitt's developments was the prime mover in organizing the association and always served as its first president. Not by design," Westcott said, "that's just the way it happened. And, he always went on to serve in the lower and upper houses of the state legislature."
Levitt kept his promise. This was growth on a grand scale. It was a community-oriented concept of growth. Levitt knew from his giant developments on Long Island and in Pennsylvania and New Jersey that thousands of buyers, needed to put down roots, to meet each other, to provide conveniently for their daily needs and to help one another through civic involvement.
Now a Maryland State Senator and the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, Ed Conroy moved with his wife Mary, into their Shawmont Lane home on Oct. 17, 1961. Conroy presided over the first Belair Civic Association meeting at Charlie Gentile's liquor store.
"We were pioneers," Conroy said. "About 2,000 couples bent on carving careers in the Washington area. We had a lot to bind us together."
Building at the rate of 50 to 80 homes a day inevitably presents construction problems. Belair's first owners, not unlike those to move in nearly 20 years later, ran into problems that united them. Problems with carpentry, wiring, masonry, materials and so on.
Levitt reportedly was incensed that so many problems were cropping up. According to Westcott, Levitt prided himself on the value offered in his homes and his customer service. However, Westcott says, Levitt needed to build and sell those first few thousand homes fast. He was president of the building firm begun by his father, Abraham.
But Bill Levitt had to meet a deadline to buy out the firm from his brother and partner, Alfred. The profit from those first Belair homes was necessary. And so was the haste.
Most of the construction problems were eventually resolved. A check for $500 was given to each complaining owner to correct the small problems. Fortunately for Levitt, those problems did not seriously hamper sales. "Let's face it," Westcott said, "it was the best buy in the whole area."
The basic Cape Cod style model sole for $14,500, the rancher for $15,500, the four-bedroom colonial for $17,500. And they were on larger lots than those offered by competing tract builders. Those same Levitt homes are now comanding prices ranging from the upper $60s to $80,000 or more.
Levitt acquired more and more land and built more houses, (about 9,000 of the 10,000 on the city rolls). Then Levitt sold his later publicly owned housing operations to the International Telephone and Telegraph conglomerate in 1968. By 1971, having suffered $400 million in losses, the firm went into receivership under Victor Palmieri.
In 1977, the company was sold to the Starrett Corp. Starrett lost the right to build in Prince George's County in 1979, following massive numbers of consumer complaints and building code violations, thus ending -- and in the minds of many, defaming -- the Levitt name in Bowie.
Regardless of how the economies of Levitt's thousands of homes were brought about, they drew buyers from throughout the country. Many Belair buyers had lived elsewhere in Levitt communities. "A good buy and a chance to be in a great community to raise our kids," say most of the early buyers.
William Wildman, a fifth-generation Bowieite who served as a city councilman for 12 years and as mayor for one, says Bowie's growth has helped us all -- the older residents as well as the newcomers: "We all have a better place to live. We like it here."
But does everyone feel that way? In 1964, the newly chartered Bowie City Council estimated in an annual report that there would be 50,000 residents by 1980 and 78,000 by 1985. In fact, Bowie's population peaked at 42,000 in 1978. It's been declining slowly since.
(Next week: a look at what is happening in the Bowie of 1980 and where it is going.)