Blasts from the past
Old Austin homes leave clues for surviving our summers
“It was less humid in those days,” says native Austinite Mary Cochran Bohls, 92, “before they put in the lakes.”
That makes sense: Humidity is moisture suspended in the air. The more Austinites have expanded the surface area of lakes — by damming up the Colorado River with various degrees of success from 1893 to 1960 — the more moisture available to evaporate into the enveloping stickiness.
At least it feels that way some days.
Bohls, the subject of a recent American-Statesman profile, had plenty of experience with Austin summers before air conditioning, an invention that historians credit with making modern Texas possible. She grew up in the 1856 Neill-Cochran House, now a museum in West Campus.
LISTEN: The Heat Week edition of our podcast, "I Love You So Much":
Like other pre-midcentury homes in Austin, it was designed to take the sting out of summer without the aid of more advanced cooling methods.
We asked some experts on history, architecture and construction about the design elements that helped cool Central Texans in the past. They replied with numerous strategies for staying cool pre-AC, some of which can be adapted for today’s needs.
1. Wide eaves and covered porches. Overhangs of all kinds were not just decorative additions to traditional Austin homes: They were necessities. They kept the sun, and thus the heat, off walls, windows and residents.
Even when elaborately decorated, like the maroon wraparound porch at the 1887 Eastlake-style Hirshfeld-Moore House, the former “Aggie Embassy” at Lavaca and West Ninth streets, they performed a cardinal function.
The 1922 Wilmot House at West Ninth and San Antonio streets includes extended eaves and a covered front porch facing east to catch breezes.
“The house sits atop a hill, which was also a plus, not only for better views but, of course, better-than-normal wind gusts,” says Perry Horton, whose family lived there before he and his father, John Horton, renovated it for use as offices. “I imagine my great-great-grandfather and other ancestors enjoying a scotch on the porch in the late evening hours contemplating life and their next business venture."
A front porch with two-story-tall columns and a balcony are essential elements of the 1856 Neill-Cochran House. “It takes a lot for our front porch to become uncomfortable during the summer,” says museum director Rowena Dasch, “but the back of the house and parking lot bake.”
2. Shade trees, blinds, shutters and awnings. It doesn’t take a design genius to realize that shade trees like pecans, live oaks and cedar elms played a vital role during Austin’s first 100 years, and they do so today.
“The site selected for the Texas Governor’s Mansion was a full block, providing plenty of space for the building and landscaping,” says Kay Harvey-Mosley, a docent at the mansion, built in 1854 and a residence for the state’s governors and their families since 1856. “An eastern exposure was chosen to take advantage of the prevailing breeze. Early photographs show trees and other landscaping that provided shade.”
The Neill-Cochran House used multiple strategies. “The operable blinds on the house, most of which are original to 1856, were used regularly during the pre-AC period,” Dasch says. “You could open the blinds only where the windows were open, keeping the rooms as dark as possible while allowing the air to move through.”
3. High ceilings and tall windows along with open central walkways. High ceilings and tall windows were part of organized thermal planning. Heat rises and then escapes through any apertures, including transom windows.
Some of the earliest Texas homes included “dogtrots,” open-ended passageways set between the main rooms. Those evolved into wide, enclosed central hallways whose doors could be opened to abet air circulation.
“The Governor’s Mansion was designed with a deep veranda, tall windows and wide hallways to permit ventilation in the summer when the front and back doors were open,” Harvey-Mosley says.
Green Pastures, a large 1895 family home for a South Austin dairy farm that became a beloved and recently reinvented dining establishment, takes full advantage of cooling techniques.
“They relied on porches, a central hall, tall ceilings and rooms with windows on at least two sides in order to enhance cross-breeze ventilation,” says Emily Little, prominent preservation architect who led the recent renovation project. “High ceilings and operable transom windows over doors, exterior and interior, are also key to pulling the higher hot air out of the house.”
4. Thick walls and exposure to the prevailing winds from the southeast. Most of the old homes mentioned here are oriented toward the breezes from the Gulf of Mexico. Some come with thick stone walls — those at the Neill-Cochran House are 18 inches of solid stone — which provided superior insulation compared to early houses made of log or sawed lumber.
Later houses sometimes employed two layers of brick. Although gorgeous to the modern eye, the beige, almost buttery “Austin common” bricks from the Butler Brick Company were often used as unseen lining, while a sharper variety might face public facades. The exposed bricks that help define downtown’s drinking and dining aesthetic are mostly the once less desirable “Austin common.”
5. Proximity to water. Almost all the pre-AC houses in Austin were built near creeks, ponds or rivers. Some of those waterways have since disappeared under development, such as Little Shoal Creek, once right below the Wilmot House, and the tiny creek near the French Legation, presumably the “long branch” of the Longbranch Inn, which once included a recreational pond out back.
Formosa, otherwise known as the Elisabet Ney Museum these days, sits right on the main branch of Waller Creek. Green Pastures is walking distance to East and West Bouldin creeks and a horseback ride away from Onion Creek or Barton Springs.
In a self-published memoir, Elizabeth Woodward Jones, Dasch’s great-aunt — who was born in 1913 and lived at 900 W. 17th St. — wrote about the thrilling draw of Barton Springs even before the pool was added.
“In our family, one of the most important things about Austin was Barton Springs,” Jones wrote. “We would crawl under the barbed wire fence to reach the springs. It wasn't dammed up then, and the water came gushing out icy cold! Many people just couldn't get in because it was so cold.”
Austinites often identify the impressively preserved Flower Hill residence — also known as the 1877 Richmond Kelley Smoot House — on West Sixth and Pressler streets by its prominent columns and elaborate landscaping. Not many know that homestead once included a lake.
“The original 5 acres the Smoots purchased in 1876 included a natural spring-fed lake, where Pressler Street now runs,” says director Robin Grace Soto, who is helping to transform Flower Hill into an urban homestead museum. “This was one of the main reasons the Smoots purchased this specific plot of land.”
And if you didn’t want to leave the house on a hot day, you brought the cooling waters inside.
“Flower Hill also has an old porcelain tub that was originally a part of the Joseph Nalle mansion that sat just east of Flower Hill on West Sixth,” Soto says. “The Smoots claimed that it was the first bathtub in Austin. When the Nalles wanted to get rid of it, the Smoots took it in. Miss Jane Smoot used to fill the giant solid porcelain tub with cold water on hot Texas days, and she said it was just like swimming in Deep Eddy.”
6. Ceiling, floor and window fans. Carol Ann Sayle and the late Larry Butler lived in the heat at Boggy Creek Farmhouse — started in 1840 and completed in 1841 with traditional cooling methods — without air conditioning from 1991 to 2004.
“We beat the heat at night by putting a box fan in a bedroom window and placing wet towels on our bare bodies,” Sayle says. “We were instantly cooled enough for a good sleep until 1 a.m. Then the towels would be re-wetted and we slept well till dawn. We did not want window AC coolers as we were afraid the old windows would be damaged.”
Larger attic and floor fans could work with a home’s design to create widespread comfort. “Attic fans existed at the end of the grand hallway,” Horton says of Wilmot House. The fans drew air “from the large front door to circulate airflow throughout the house.”
Flower Hill didn’t get HVAC until the early 2000s. “Even then, Miss Jane Smoot didn't like to use it,” Soto says of the Smoot descendant who preserved Flower Hill with much of its historical furniture and décor. “She believed in her grandfather’s design (which included multiple pathways for breezes through the house). She always said that her grandfather Richmond Smoot worked with nature. That was the only way to survive in Texas back then.”
7. Separate kitchen structures. This strategy kept the main house cool and offered some fire protection. Of course, it was hot in the kitchen, which in some of these historic homes meant slaves or servants endured the worst of the heat.
Perhaps the best-preserved out-kitchen is found behind the French Legation, currently closed for renovations. The East Austin home, built by a contentious French diplomat in 1841 in the Creole style, is expected to reopen as a museum later this year.
The Joseph and Susanna Dickinson Hannig House and the O. Henry House, now side-by-side museums downtown, were built in the 1860s and 1880s, respectively.
“When Athol and Will Porter (O. Henry) lived in this Queen Anne style circa 1880s clapboard cottage, they had little relief from the summer heat,” says Melissa Parr, senior curator and site coordinator for the two small house museums that were moved to Brush Square. “The home is a modest working-class house typical of the time period. However, there are a few cooling features in the architectural design. In the 1880s, the kitchen and bathroom were outside; water was gathered every day from the community well.”
8. High elevations and sleeping porches. For multiple reasons — status, breezes, views, fewer mosquitoes — Austinites with means, just as elsewhere in the world, often planted their homes atop hills, starting with the French Legation in 1841. The practice has not abated.
Sleeping porches, usually located on an upper floor and screened on three sides, are popular again in some parts of the city. One can see them in full historical glory at Flower Hill. “There’s one on the north side of the home and one on the south with a view of the Colorado,” Soto says.
A sleeping porch was added to the Governor’s Mansion in the early 20th century; Gov. Allan Shivers brought in air conditioning during the 1950s. The Cochrans tacked a sleeping porch onto the Neill-Cochran House in 1900.
9. Iceboxes and summer beverages. Iceboxes predated refrigerators, as older Austinites will remind you. (This reporter still uses the term that his grandparents and parents never abandoned.) Usually metal containers meant to cool perishable foods with big blocks of ice, they also provided relief from the heat.
"The ice man came to our house in a horse-drawn wagon,” Jones writes. “He went around the back with a 25- to 50-pound chunk of ice over his shoulder to the west side and up some steps to a platform where there was a door. He opened that door so he could put huge chunks of ice in the icebox without walking through the house. We would chip off the ice all day long.”
Going back to the mid-19th century, downtown Austin was home to dozens of refreshing beer joints, not unlike Scholz Garten, the oldest restaurant and tavern in town.
“Due to the Wilmot's house central location, watering holes — drinking and swimming — were never too far away,” Horton says. “I'm sure the Driskill was visited often, especially since Dr. Edward Perry ‘E.P.’ Wilmot was owner for a long time.”
10. Pier-and-beam construction and basements. Ever wonder why pier-and-beam homes — as opposed to houses with slab foundations, the ones set up on piers — are often laced with lattice over the crawl spaces beneath the floors? In part, to allow breezes to circulate there. Even working-class cottages like O. Henry’s were built up off the ground partly to encourage this cooling technique.
The same would have been true of the Connolly-Yerwood house, a 1905 cottage on East 12th Street built by the Connolly family in 1905 and later the home of medical pioneer Dr. Connie Yerwood, although historical photographs indicate that the crawl space might have been mostly enclosed, at least since the 1920s.
Basements and root cellars provided alternative cavelike coolness. The Wilmot House doubles the effect by combining concrete floors along with concrete piers and beams in its 2,000-square-foot basement.
“One of my very favorite Texas solutions is Sebastopol House in Seguin,” Little says. “In addition to its unusual concrete construction, the cistern is the whole roof, concealed behind the parapet walls. This acts as insulation when full. … It’s worth a trip.”
MORE ON OLD AUSTIN HOMES
WELCOME TO HEAT WEEK
When you live in Austin, extreme heat's a given. This week, we're bringing you a series of stories about all the ways high temperatures affect our way of life beyond the weather forecast. See them all at austin360.com/heatweek.
Essential safety tips for hot weather: stay hydrated; watch for the signs of heat exhaustion and heatstroke; and never leave kids or pets in the car. If you or someone you encounter seems to be experiencing health problems related to the heat, take immediate action to cool down and call 911. For more tips, go to austintexas.gov.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Family Eldercare's annual Summer Fan Drive delivers fans to seniors, adults with disabilities and families with children who need heat relief and meet the drive's eligibility requirements. Find donation and volunteer information at summerfandrive.org.
SEE FOR YOURSELF
Some of these historic houses are not open to the public on a regular basis, but even the view from the curb is instructive regarding pre-air conditioning design techniques.
Boggy Creek Farmhouse, 3414 Lyons Road
Flower Hill, 1316 W. Sixth St.
Formosa, 304 E. 44th St.
French Legation, 802 San Marcos St.
Governor’s Mansion, 1010 Colorado St.
Green Pastures, 811 W. Live Oak St.
Hirshfeld-Moore House, 303 W. Ninth St.
Neill-Cochran House, 2310 San Gabriel St.
O. Henry House Museum, 409 E. Fifth St.
Wilmot House, 904 San Antonio St.