Ralph Bodek’s Lawrence Park Showed Builder’s—and Buyer’s—Split Personalities
Both the home design and the region were considered a safe choice for homebuyers in the 1950s.
A ’50s-era Lawrence Park brochure
Homebuyers usually have rational reasons for choosing one house over another—location, space, granite countertops. But they also tend to have plenty of irrational mental baggage.
Over 60 years ago, local developer Ralph Bodek was all over the irrational part. The builder of Broomall’s Lawrence Park neighborhood believed that buyers chose houses compatible with their own perceived social status.
Two-story Colonials, he concluded back in 1953, caused “status anxiety” among low- and moderate-income buyers moving out of the city after World War II. According to Bodek, such buyers looked at traditional houses and imagined doctors, lawyers and other high-income professionals—and that made them nervous. “Many would like to be similar to these people,” wrote Bodek in a summary of his self-funded survey of Lawrence Park buyers. “But they believe they really cannot be like them. Therefore, they look for some intermediate social position—and the split-level home fills the bill.”
Not surprisingly, nearly all of Bodek’s Lawrence Park houses were split-levels.
Born in West Philadelphia, Bodek was the son of Joseph Bodek, a builder and manager of apartment houses, and his wife, Jenny. He grew up in Upper Darby and attended the University of Pennsylvania, receiving a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1937. Bodek worked for his father, helping manage the family’s real- estate holdings, then joined the Naval Air Force during World War II, when he was stationed at Alameda and Sunnyvale, Calif., as an officer.
After the war, Bodek came home to a series of jobs, including two years as a police reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He sold insurance and briefly owned an advertising agency before returning to work for his father. Using the elder Bodek’s contacts, he began building on his own.
According to architectural historian Barbara Lane, Bodek built six small developments of rowhouses and twins in the Philadelphia suburbs between 1948 and ’52. That provided good practice in assembling a construction team and making connections.
Bodek’s first large project went up on 169 acres in Springfield: 600 two-story brick Colonials on one-fifth-acre lots. Lane described them as “boxy-looking center-hall layouts with Colonial-looking trim around the doors and windows.” Each had three bedrooms, one bath, no garage, and sold for $12,900—less than the $14,750 three-bedroom, stone-fronted flattops developer Frank Facciolo had started constructing near the Paxon Hollow golf course.
This was the period—between the end of wartime building-material restrictions in 1947 and the 1973 oil embargo—when modern American suburbs were built. When postwar birth rates skyrocketed, a frenzy of construction was inevitable. The proliferation of the automobile guaranteed that it would occur in the burbs, with at least 13 million single-family homes built.
By 1950, more Americans lived in suburbs than in cities. “There is some concern whether the trend will reach a saturation point—too many dwelling units instead of not enough,” reported the Delaware County Daily Times in 1963.
After his success in Springfield, Bodek took on a 600-acre tract of land in Marple Township. Assembled in the 1930s by Samuel Robinson, cofounder of Acme Markets, the land cost Bodek $900,000. Faced with a zoning requirement that a quarter of the acreage be set aside for industrial or commercial development, and another chunk for schools and parks, Bodek produced a plan for 1,200 homes on 420 acres. He named it Lawrence Park, after the road, which ran through the tract.
“Bodek and his backers liked [the zoning requirements], realizing that they would be able to sell off large parcels for an industrial park and shopping center,” wrote Lane.
A challenge was that no public transit served the tract. The Springfield project had a trolley line, but Lawrence Park was hilly and bisected by a large ravine.
In the Philadelphia area, Bodek seems to have been the first major builder of split-levels, whose origin remains a mystery. According to Bob Gerloff, a Minneapolis architect who specializes in their renovation, the basic design first appeared in Chicago in the 1930s. A 1935 Sears and Roebuck plan book included several houses with all the basic characteristics: living spaces a half-flight of stairs above the garage level, bedrooms stacked over the garage a half-flight up from the living level, and a half-basement level with daylight windows.
“Homebuyers were demanding more square footage in houses, but lots weren’t getting any wider,” said Gerloff, explaining the split’s appeal. “Stacking the bedrooms over the garage was a simple way to squeeze a larger house onto a lot.”
Split-levels also had a more substantial presence and, therefore more emotional pull than a ranch. For builders, they were ideal for sloping sites and represented a cost savings by eliminating the need to excavate a full basement.
Naming the new house type took some time. Sears called them “modern homes,” but that didn’t stick. Multilevel homes, hillside homes and “splanches” (split-level ranches) were other options. By the time the postwar boom was cranking up in the late 1940s, the term “split-level” became widely accepted. Given their numbers, they were popular—but not universally so. Folk singer Malvina Reynolds made a name for herself with “Little Boxes,” written in 1962, ridiculing postwar housing: “All made out of ticky-tacky … and they all look just the same / And the people in the houses / All went to the university / Where they were put in boxes / And they came out all the same.”
Songwriter Tom Lehrer called Reynolds’ ditty “the most sanctimonious song ever written,” but many scholars of the period fretted about the psychological impact of living in car-oriented suburbs. Sociologist David Riesman, coauthor of a 1950 analysis, The Lonely Crowd, argued that Americans who lived in repetitious suburbs were being stripped of their individuality. Others worried about tract houses’ isolating effect on stay-at-home mothers who, 10 years earlier, had been Rosie-the-Riveter heroines.
Lane thought most criticisms were overblown. For most buyers, she said, tract housing offered a major improvement in their lives: an opportunity to own a new house, often the first new house anyone in their families had ever had. One tract-house buyer put it like this:
“Outside, there were front and back yards, where the kids could run free. Of course, you had to get to know the neighbors from scratch, because everyone was from somewhere else. But that didn’t take long, and the place was paradise for kids. It was paradise for us, too—owning our own house and yard for the first time. The house was about 1,000 square feet, a lot roomier than the place we’d been
living before, and roomier than the places we grew up in, too.”
Bodek claimed that he had invented the modern split-level, but other local developers were building them, as well. His first three models—the Amherst, the Clarendon and the Barclay—went up on Lawrence Road in 1954.
Differences seem to have been mostly in the exterior: The front of Amherst was finished with vertical paneling and brick, while the Barclay had vertical clapboards and stone. All featured an asymmetrical gable and included 1,100 square feet of living space. Sales literature extolled a “mammoth” recreation room, a “palatial” living room, a “gorgeous ultra-modern” kitchen, and two full ceramic bathrooms “with colored fixtures.”
Lane thought Bodek an “inspired” merchandiser. His models were fully furnished, and buyers could choose the furniture and appliances they wanted. Opening day for his model homes was celebrated with parties, balloons and a blimp, with an attendance of 20,000.
Like many builders, he studied his clientele, commissioning a Penn research team to survey 78 buyers of Lawrence Park homes. They had a strong preference for split-level houses. Location was important in their choice, searching listings through newspaper ads and friends. They also preferred new houses to old.
More unusual was Bodek’s “free association” test, in which researchers displayed pictures of rowhouses, twins, two-story Colonials, a ranch and a Bodek split-level, and asked for subjects’ reactions. From this, Bodek made several conclusions about buyers’ attitudes regarding the social value of various housing styles. The rowhouse was seen as a residence for low-income families, and twins for “low middle income.” Ranches were a little dangerous “and not quite respectable.” Colonials were “the top of the social scale.” Bodek’s buyers, predictably, preferred splits.
“I don’t think Bodek was entirely wrong about this,” said Lane. “The popularity of his houses was probably more linked to buyers’ feelings about past vs. future, than to their class aspirations. The stone-trimmed split-levels seemed to people to be better linked to past buildings than ranch houses.”
Bodek, incidentally, lived in a two-story 1920s Colonial in Wynnewood. His family was Jewish, and the Main Line mentality at the time was generally anti-Semitic. Simply being there was an achievement.
Residents of Lawrence Park probably felt the same way.