Living in an Air Conditioned Village

Street scene in Air Conditioned Village, June 2, 1954, DM-54-C20102 detail

Living in an Air Conditioned Village

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

by Nicole Davis

I think we can all agree: it would be hard to live through a summer in Texas without air conditioning. We often take it for granted today, though. We have A/C in our cars, our homes, our offices, everywhere we go, really. But that wasn’t always the case. The first modern air conditioning unit was created in 1902. Over the next few decades, air conditioning, often called “packaged air,” was considered a luxury and installations were primarily for commercial businesses. But that would change in the 1950s.

In 1953 the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) came up with an idea to promote development of residential air conditioning. Working with a variety of builders and air conditioning manufacturers, they wanted to construct new houses featuring central air. These houses would be test sites for research on feasibility, cost effectiveness, and energy efficiency as well as on the effects of A/C on happiness and health.

Austin was lucky enough to be chosen as the site of this “air conditioned village.” This village consisted of 22 homes located in the Edgewood subdivision on Twin Oaks Drive, Park View Drive, Daugherty Street, and Nasco Drive. The houses were approximately 1,400 square feet with three bedrooms, 1.5 or 2 bathrooms, and carports or garages. They cost about $15,000, which would be about $136,000 in today’s dollars.

view of the site office showsThis view of the site office shows how undeveloped the surrounding area was at the time, August 12, 1954, DM-54-C20449

aerial viewIn this aerial view you can see the nearly complete neighborhood. Park View Drive is the dark road, Daugherty Street is the slightly curved road on the right, Twin Oaks Drive is below Park View and extends to the right, and Nasco Drive runs north from the bottom left. A corner of the Burnet Drive-in Theater on Burnet Road is visible on the bottom right. May 28, 1954, DM-54-C19962

In addition to installing central air, the builders used design elements to keep these houses working efficiently. For example:

  • roofs had wide overhangs, carports, and extended walls to create more shade;
  • windows were strategically located to avoid strong sun;
  • kitchens and bathrooms had ventilation systems;
  • new types of insulation were used in walls and roofs;
  • attics were ventilated.

exterior view of the “Blend-Aire” homeThis exterior view of the “Blend-Aire” home under construction shows a covered walkway shading the front entry, May 29, 1954, DM-54-C19995

While it may seem obvious to us today that everyone would want A/C at home, one of the initial concerns was that the fans would be too noisy. The machines are unsightly, so many builders used low exterior walls to hide them from view. Ducts also had to be incorporated into home design for the first time. The houses in the Village were named for the A/C units they featured; some examples: “The Weathermaker,” “The Cool Living,” “The Western Komfort,” and “The Comfortmaker.”

The Customaire homeThe nearly complete “Customaire,” has a partition wall between the carport and entry providing privacy, shade, and perhaps hiding equipment, May 29, 1954, DM-54-C19998

After a year of families inhabiting these homes, the NAHB concluded their study. They reported that families spent more time at home, slept longer, and were happier. Of course the NAHB had a strong interest in expanding the market for central air, so they may have only publicized the positive impacts of their findings.

Woman looking at a stove
A woman touring a new home inspects the modern kitchen appliances, May 30, 1954, DM-54-C20028

A man looking at an A/C unit
A man, perhaps a prospective homebuyer, looks at looking at A/C unit in one of the homes, May 30, 1954, DM-54-C20020

Family in a houseFamily in the living room of a house under construction, May 30, 1954, DM-54-C20012

The photographs here are all by Dewey Mears, Austin’s go-to architectural photographer in the mid-20th century. He was hired by the builders to document the construction progress of Air Conditioned Village. The Austin History Center is lucky to have his photographic archive, donated by his family, with these photos. The finding aid with an inventory of the negatives is available on Texas Archival Resources Online . A wider selection of digitized images is on the Portal to Texas History, and more will be added over the coming months. An exhibit of his work is on view at the History Center from August 29, 2017-January 14, 2018.

To learn more about Air Conditioned Village, come into the History Center and take a look at our Austin File on the subject.