A Historic House at Mere 48 Years Old : Suburbia: It was among first built on Long Island by William J. Levitt, who provided 'mass housing for the masses.' The landmark has its original pine tree.


It hardly appears historic, just another small house on another shady street in the suburban landscape of Long Island.

"I'm older than the house," quips owner Charles J. Weber, 83, a retired American Airlines aircraft mechanic who moved in with his wife, Kathleen, when the house was built all of 48 years ago.

But the house has a special place in history because of one name: William J. Levitt. The Webers' home, virtually unchanged from when the couple moved in, was among the first built in what would become the sprawling community of 17,000 homes built by the legendary developer who led the transformation of Long Island from potato fields to suburbia.

This month, the home at 52 Oak Tree Lane in Levittown became an official historic landmark, at least on a local level. That means it gets a small historic marker and the Webers can't change the exterior visible from the street. The Hempstead Town Board approved the designation unanimously.

"Many of us in the United States are accustomed to thinking of a historic landmark as being 300 years old or 200 years old or even Victorian, 100 years old," said Paul Van Wie, a Hofstra University political science professor and the member of the Hempstead Town Landmarks Preservation Commission who spearheaded the effort to designate a Levitt home.

"But, really, Levitt had such an impact on the future shape of America that it really is a landmark in American history. It was mass housing for the masses, and that really hadn't been done in that way before."

The houses, ingeniously designed by Levitt's brother, Alfred, were affordable because they were mass produced and had no basements.

"This was assembly-line rather than custom-built homes one at a time," Van Wie said.

The landmark designation was not without controversy. The Levittown Historical Society opposed the move because the Webers, as have countless other Long Islanders, had aluminum siding put up over the original shingles. The siding covered up two narrow faux windows that were right below the roof line on the Levitt homes.

The historical society wanted the town to wait until it found a home in its original condition. After a public hearing in May, 1994, the town board agreed to give the organization time to find such a home. But, to date, the society has been unable to find one with an owner willing to have the landmark designation placed on his or her home.

"We're disappointed," said Anne Martin, president of the historical society. "If you drove around the area with us, we could show you original homes. Unfortunately, we can't get people interested enough to have it landmarked."

Kathleen Weber, 70, actively sought the designation after seeing a newspaper ad at a local senior citizens center.

Jim York, vice chairman of the town landmarks preservation commission, defended the choice. Aside from the aluminum siding, the house remains in its original condition, he said. The Webers still have the pine tree on the front lawn that came with every Levitt home.

Most of the other Levitt homes on the Webers' block and elsewhere on Long Island have grown with additions, screened-in porches, garages and bay windows. The Webers have added an asphalt driveway, but not even a garage.

The Smithsonian Institute is in the preliminary stages of a search for a Levitt house that would be a museum piece. "It's a major 20th-Century icon," said Bill Yeingst, museum specialist in the Smithsonian's division for social history.

The museum is looking for a 1949 ranch model, which is slightly different from the 1947 Cape Cod model that the Webers own. To date, it has been unable to find an owner willing to give up his or her house to be moved to Washington, D.C., Yeingst said.

The Webers started out as renters, paying $65 a month until they decided to buy it six years later for $8,400.

When they first moved in, there were about 150 homes and potato bugs all over the still unpaved roads. Acquaintances thought they were crazy.

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