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HLC wants further scrutiny of home in the ‘Air-Conditioned Village’

Wednesday, July 1, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Seventy years ago, 22 homes in Northwest Austin served as the test case for bringing central air conditioning to the middle classes. Today only 15 of those homes remain standing, with one more proposed for demolition.

The midcentury modern home at 2502 Park View Drive was originally known as the “Air Temp” house, as it featured a Chrysler AirTemp air-conditioning system. Over the years, the structure has deteriorated, Barry Williamson, the applicant for the property, told the Historic Landmark Commission at its June 22 meeting where he requested an application for demolition of the home.

“These are modest houses,” Commissioner Kelly Little said. “But they’re important examples of modern, postwar architecture.”

The commission supported Little’s opinion that the home merited further investigation before a demolition permit was granted, and voted to postpone the case to July in order for the property owners to provide a structural report outlining the condition of the building.

According to Williamson, the home, which city staff from the Historic Preservation Office identified as “remarkably intact,” was on its last legs as the mechanical structures supporting the house have failed. “We don’t think this can be restored, so we’re asking the commission if we can demolish the house,” he said.

In addition, Williamson told the commissioners that when he walked the block the afternoon prior to the meeting, more than two dozen neighbors offered their support for the demolition application. However, at the meeting, backup for the case contained opposition from Preservation Austin, Mid Tex Mod, a preservation group for midcentury modern architecture, and city staff.

“This house is one of the premier examples of midcentury modern architecture in the Air-Conditioned Village, a potential historic district, and every effort should be made to preserve the integrity of the house,” according to the assessment by city staff.

Mid Tex Mod said in a letter, “The house retains a remarkably high degree of integrity of design, materials, workmanship, and feeling as the most distinctive and intact original residence within the Austin Air-Conditioned Village development.” And Preservation Austin noted, “The Air Conditioned Village has seen too many demolitions, at a rapidly increased rate, over the past several years.”

The property on Park View Drive was the subject of a yearlong experiment in building innovation and social science, conducted by the National Association of Home Builders and research partners including the University of Texas at Austin, that evaluated the cost-effectiveness and profitability of central air in middle-class housing. Before this, central air was the domain of commercial buildings and high-end residential architecture. The results of the experiment led to the widespread introduction of air conditioning in residences in warm climates in the United States.

Due to its unique history and midcentury architectural style, there is currently an effort by the neighborhood to obtain a National Register historic nomination, Little explained.

With consideration for this grassroots effort to preserve the neighborhood, and city staff’s assessment that the number of intact structures in the vicinity makes the neighborhood eligible for a local historic district, the commission voted 7-1-1 to postpone the case for further information about the structure’s integrity. Commissioner Alex Papavasiliou voted against the motion and Commissioner Trey McWhorter abstained. Commissioners Terri Myers and Mathew Jacob were absent.

Photos courtesy of the city of Austin.

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