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How one Austin neighborhood paved the way for a culture of central air conditioning

The homes in Austin's Air Conditioned Village were built in a flat, tree-less part of Austin so that no home would be more shaded than others, skewing the test results.
Austin History Center
Austin Public Library
The homes in Austin's Air Conditioned Village were built in a flat, tree-less area so no home would be more shaded than others, skewing the test results.

When Gretchen Culbert was 11 years old in 1954, her parents moved the family into a new house at the edge of Austin. There was a lot to marvel at. The one-story home had a dishwasher and a fireplace. It spanned 1,468 square feet, making it the biggest house in the neighborhood. A local paper at the time called the home “outstanding,” with an entire glass wall that opened onto an enclosed terrace.

But the feature that drew the most attention was harder to see. Culbert could feel it on her skin, hear it as the mechanism that powered it flicked on and off. It felt good, especially after a day spent playing in the Texas heat.

Culbert’s childhood home had central air conditioning.

“No one else had air conditioning around us except for stores or office buildings,” Culbert, 81, said. “It was super exciting.”

Her father, Henry “Hank” Fenderbosch, worked for a local construction firm. The company had helped build a subdivision on farmland off Burnet Road, 6 miles north of downtown in the neighborhood now known as Allandale. Each of the 22 midcentury-style homes had been outfitted with central air conditioning, a technology so rare that fewer than 1 in 10 new houses nationwide had it.

It wasn’t that builders didn’t know how to construct homes with central air. The technology was there. But the government, which was pushing to expand homeownership, was reluctant to back mortgages for homes with it. Officials worried hefty utility bills would sap the budgets of middle-income families.

The Air Conditioned Village included an information center with a large sign outside listing all the sponsors of the project.
Austin History Center
Austin Public Library
The Air Conditioned Village included an information center with a large sign outside listing all the sponsors of the project.

So when Fenderbosch, his wife and four kids moved into a home on Twin Oaks Drive, they joined nearly two dozen families taking part in an experiment. The neighborhood was called the Air Conditioned Village. For two years the homes and the people living in them would be monitored by scientists, engineers and the larger public. The question everyone was trying to answer: Who could afford to live in central air conditioning?

‘Comfort equipment’ comes to Austin

In the early 1950s, just 1% of households in the country had a room air-conditioning unit. Many people used fans to cool off at home. But in the middle of a Texas summer, a fan was little relief. “You could set [a box fan] in the window and it would draw in air but it was always hot air,” Culbert said. “That was pretty much it.”

Even if they didn’t have it in their homes, people knew what central air conditioning was. Some department stores, restaurants and movie theaters had it and often used the cool air to entice people inside.

Members of the National Association of Home Builders raised the idea of an air conditioned test village at a meeting in 1953. Ned Cole, an Austin builder, proposed the Texas capital as the site; the city, with its hot summers and mix of dry and humid heat, was a perfect trial ground. There had been air conditioned test villages built before, but according to the Austin Statesman at the time, this would be the first experiment where families lived in these homes.

The National Association of Home Builders partnered with the UT Austin’s engineering school and a trade organization representing heating and cooling manufacturers to collect data. Researchers planned to study the psychological and health impacts of living full-time with central air conditioning.

But the biggest data point would be the cost. Builders wanted to prove they could construct homes efficiently enough so that central air conditioning, or the “daily use of comfort equipment,” as one researcher called it, would not bankrupt middle-income homeowners.

“One of the major problems,” a UT Austin professor wrote in a proposal for the project, “is that of convincing the lending agencies that air-conditioning works and that it is here to stay.”

By early 1954 Austin’s test village was well underway: More than a dozen local builders had designed 22 homes. They used materials such as stone and vinyl, tried out varying types and thicknesses of insulation, positioned the homes so the windows faced several directions and used different manufacturers’ cooling units — all to see what worked best.

The homes were modestly sized by today’s standards, ranging from 1,100 square feet to nearly 1,500 square feet. The homes sold for under $16,000 — about $186,000 in today’s dollars, a price point unheard of in Austin’s current housing market. In addition to central air conditioning, many of the homes had other modern features, including dishwashers and clothes dryers.

Shirlie Sweet remembers the terrazzo floors of her family’s house. Sweet’s dad, Charles Ashworth, was an executive at Fabricon, a construction company that helped build part of the Air Conditioned Village. Ashworth moved his family into a home on Parkview Drive when Sweet was 4 years old.

“It was so pleasant in the summer to walk in the house with your bare feet and [feel] how cold the slab was,” Sweet, 74, said. “We were real aware of how special it was.”

A police officer shoots a rod of ice in half to mark the opening of Austin's Air Conditioned Village on June 2, 1954.
Austin History Center
Austin Public Library
A police officer shoots a rod of ice in half to mark the opening of Austin's Air Conditioned Village on June 2, 1954.

So was the rest of the world. In June 1954, as families began moving into the test homes, a reporter for the Austin Statesman wrote: “Austin is the air conditioning research center of the world." On "opening day," members of the public toured the homes and helped themselves to barbecue from wagons set up outside. In lieu of the typical ribbon-cutting, a law enforcement officer shot a 6-foot-long bar of ice in two.

The bang marked the start of a cooler future.

The legacy of Austin’s Air Conditioned Village

Testing began that summer.

“We had all kinds of gizmos set up through the house,” said Charlene Zimmerman, 85, who was a teenager when her family moved into a home in the Air Conditioned Village.

While Zimmerman's home had sensors installed inside to collect data, not all homes had them. Researchers used a station wagon as a mobile testing site, driving it from house to house. They measured indoor and outdoor temperatures. They measured the speed of air flow inside the homes and the noise generated by the air conditioning systems. They asked families to document their sleeping patterns, eating habits and general mood.

It turned out Austin was a better testing ground for air conditioning than even its boosters could have imagined. The summer of 1954 was brutal. Temperatures eclipsed 100 degrees several days in July and some records set still hold today. But families in the Air Conditioned Village stayed cool.

Researchers drove a station wagon door to door in order to collect data from the homes.
Dewey G. Mears
House & Home, March 1955
Researchers drove a station wagon door to door in order to collect data from the homes.

“You could iron without sweating,” Culbert recalled. “Back then, you ironed everything. And you didn’t sweat a barrel of water in this hot room ironing.”

As time went on, the world continued to be captivated with the Austin experiment. In October 1955, a group of 10 Russian “housing experts” on a tour of building technology in the U.S. visited the Air Conditioned Village. They told a reporter for the Austin Statesman they didn’t anticipate needing residential air conditioning in the then-Soviet Union, where temperatures are much cooler, but that the technology could be used in government buildings.

“The thing I remember they were more fascinated with than even the air conditioning was the dishwasher,” Culbert said. She remembered four Russian men, dressed in suits, wandering through her house. “They spent forever taking it apart, looking in it, figuring out how you got dishes in there and how they washed.”

Gretchen Culbert remembers a group of Russian men coming to tour her family's air-conditioned home. “Mother had us well behaved and dressed and looking neat," she said.
Audrey McGlinchy
KUT News
Gretchen Culbert remembers a group of Russian men coming to tour her family's air-conditioned home. “Mother had us well behaved and dressed and looking neat," she said.

To those living in the village, the air conditioning continued to be the star. Families reported sleeping longer, having a “better disposition” and feeling more energized. They spent more time indoors and ate heavier meals. Women, who did much of the housework, reported spending fewer hours cleaning; without windows open throughout the day, less dirt got in the house.

By the end of the first year, those backing the project were starting to comb through the data. Researchers wrote that the cost of central air conditioning was not “prohibitive to the small home owner.”

But some of the numbers told a different story. A report published in 1955 in an issue of House & Home stated that some families paid $57, or about $660 in today's money, to cool their homes over five months; others paid as much as $172, or $2,000 when adjusted for inflation.

“The test results were not stellar,” said Elizabeth Brummett, a director at the Texas Historical Commission who wrote her master’s thesis on the Air Conditioned Village. “They didn’t necessarily do a good job of making the case that this was affordable for an average family.”

Sweet, whose family lived in the Air Conditioned Village for two decades, said she didn’t remember her parents stressing over utility bills. But they were always aware of the potential for costs to climb higher.

“We would be conscious of not leaving doors wide open, not opening windows when it was not necessary,” she said.

Researchers pointed out various ways in which these homes were not as efficient as they could have been. Large picture windows and sliding glass doors, common in midcentury homes, let in lots of heat. Some criticized how builders placed windows in direct sunlight.

"Poor orientation was suicide," Cole, the builder who brought the experiment to Austin, told House & Home. One of the builders, George Maxwell, wrote about the village in his master's thesis for UT Austin in 1956: “The bad examples in the Village were valuable in the respect that they showed how much poor planning affects the efficiency of air conditioning.”

Clothes dryers weren’t vented to the outside, meaning hot, humid air was being pumped into the house every time the families used the machine. “We had all these new appliances and conveniences coming into the home and those weren’t necessarily being installed in a way that facilitated air conditioning,” Brummett said.

Many of the original homes built in 1954 still exist, although some have been expanded or remodeled.
Patricia Lim
KUT News
In 1954, 22 families moved into brand-new homes in what's now considered the Allandale neighborhood. They were part of a study of central air conditioning, a relatively new technology then.

Despite these issues, the families living in the Air Conditioned Village had tasted the future and they weren’t going back. House & Home quoted one family who said they paid more to operate several fans and a room cooler, neither of which was as efficient as central air conditioning. “No one encountered in this test considered air conditioning not worth the cost,” Maxwell wrote.

By 1957, the Federal Housing Administration and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs began to offer "package mortgages," according to the book Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment. The FHA and VA agreed to back loans for middle-income families wanting to buy homes with central air conditioning.

What followed was an incredible move to life in central air conditioning, at least in the South. In the next decade, the number of homes in Travis County with central air conditioning grew from 7% to 42%. Builders and financiers were meeting what one researcher at the Air Conditioned Village called “an overwhelming demand for improved comfort conditions in dwellings.”

Brummett said while Austin’s Air Conditioned Village gifted residents a way to survive scorching summers, she wished builders would have spent more time investigating ways to cool homes beyond air conditioning systems.

Last year, Austin residents lived through the hottest July on record. As people turned down their thermostats to do battle with triple-digit days, operators at the state’s energy grid consistently called for people to use less air conditioning.

“We have to have air conditioning. Our part of the U.S. is not really livable without it,” Brummett said. But the reality of the state’s electric grid has made her question the future of achieving cool homes in this state. “[The Air Conditioned Village] set us on a path to widespread adoption of air conditioning in houses that aren’t necessarily designed to be efficient,” she said.

Some of those who lived in these homes as children say their parents felt that they were at the edge of something great. They did not wrestle with the potential limitations of cooling homes in a warming climate decades later.

“Everything was changing. It was a time of accepting more and more technology in your life,” Sweet said. “We were really on the cusp of such a new way of living.”

Sweet now lives outside Houston, where air conditioning helps her survive hot, humid summers. She still remembers the phrase her mother used each time she left near-boiling temperatures and entered the cooled six-room house on Parkview Drive: “What a relief.”

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Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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