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70 years ago, some Texan families joined an experiment that ushered in life with AC

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

More than a half century ago, about 20 families in Texas took part in an experiment. They were testing something that many of us today could not live without, especially in the heat of summer. Audrey McGlinchy with member station KUT in Austin has this story.

AUDREY MCGLINCHY, BYLINE: In 1954, developers built a new neighborhood just on the edge of the Austin city limits. Gretchen Culbert's family was one of the first to move in.

GRETCHEN CULBERT: For four kids, we had more space than we needed. Everything was kind of new technology, like the dishwasher.

MCGLINCHY: It turns out the dishwasher was just the start. These 22 homes also had central air conditioning, which was rare at the time. Culbert and her family delighted in it.

CULBERT: We were very attached - in fact, almost to the point where you didn't want to go out.

MCGLINCHY: Culbert's family lived in what was called Austin's Air-Conditioned Village. When they moved in 70 years ago, they agreed to be studied. The whole neighborhood did. People would collect data about them and the homes they lived in.

ELIZABETH BRUMMETT: The experiment really had a goal of determining if air conditioning could be affordable for middle-class homeowners.

MCGLINCHY: Elizabeth Brummett works at the Texas Historical Commission. In 1955, fewer than 2% of homes in the U.S. had some form of air conditioning. Brummett says one of the reasons central AC wasn't common in homes was because of mortgage lending practices.

BRUMMETT: Lenders at this time were very nervous about the cost of operation for air conditioning systems, and so they would require a higher income level to purchase an air-conditioned home.

MCGLINCHY: To prove lenders wrong, the National Association of Home Builders proposed this test village. Builders came up with different designs for the homes. They faced them in varying directions and installed different types of insulation - all to test what worked best. In June 1954, Austin's Air-Conditioned village opened, says Brummett.

BRUMMETT: People were really, really excited about this. It was a big deal that there was this national experiment that had come to Austin.

MCGLINCHY: On opening day, people toured these homes of the future. Barbecue was served from a covered wagon. That summer, Charlene Zimmerman and her family moved in.

CHARLENE ZIMMERMAN: We had all kind of gizmos set up throughout the house.

MCGLINCHY: Gizmos that recorded data, like temperature. Researchers also asked families how living in AC affected their general mood and sleeping patterns.

ZIMMERMAN: Dad was more rested when he got up in the mornings to go to work, so it was a pleasure.

MCGLINCHY: Well, what about the cost? This whole experiment was to see if families could afford living in central AC, and the data was not great, says Brummett.

BRUMMETT: They actually did not do a particularly good job of proving that air conditioning systems were affordable for middle-income families to operate.

MCGLINCHY: According to an article published in House and Home in 1955, these families spent an average of $22 a month cooling their homes. That's about $240 today. But it turns out these families were willing to pay the higher cost of air conditioning. They said it was well worth it. Remember, before AC, people cooled their homes with fans, which also used a lot of electricity. Three years after the Air-Conditioned Village opened, government agencies started backing mortgages for air-conditioned homes.

SHIRLIE SWEET: We were really on the cusp of such a new way of living.

MCGLINCHY: Shirlie Sweet moved into the Air Conditioned Village as a kid. Now in her 70s, Sweet lives outside Houston. She relies on central AC to get through the hot, humid summers. And when she turns it on, she often thinks of a phrase her mom would say every time they entered the house on a hot Texas day.

SWEET: When we got home and walked in the house, she would say, what a relief (laughter).

MCGLINCHY: We've all had that thought just as the AC kicks on - what a relief.

For NPR News, I'm Audrey McGlinchy, in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMIE BLU SONG, "EVERYTHING ABOUT HER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Audrey McGlinchy is the City Hall reporter at KUT, covering the Austin City Council and the policies they discuss. She comes to Texas from Brooklyn, where she tried her hand at publishing, public relations and nannying. Audrey holds English and journalism degrees from Wesleyan University and the City University of New York. She got her start in journalism as an intern at KUT Radio during a summer break from graduate school. While completing her master's degree in New York City, she interned at the New York Times Magazine and Guernica Magazine.
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