1955 Austin neighborhood treasured for midcentury designs, big trees and Central Market
In 2006, Dale Herron discovered his dream home in the Western Trails neighborhood.
A lifelong fan of midcentury modern American design, he had been scoping out this Southwest Austin subdivision that was established in 1955.
“I was living way the heck south,” Herron, a human resources manager, says. “On Saturday mornings, we’d drive through this neighborhood to see what was coming on the market. There were a half a dozen homes I really, really liked.”
The winning candidate waited for him in a cul-de-sac behind a decorative geometric entryway.
“I saw packing boxes by the street,” Herron recalls. “I thought it had already been sold. But they were basically fixing it up to put it on the market. It showed up on the feed from my Realtor, and I came to take a look and signed a contract that day. I wrote a letter to the owner and shared my love of the house and the neighborhood and I said I would take very good care of it.”
Herron’s now-husband, Ted Yanecek, was not so sure.
“I thought Dale was nuts,” the college administrator says with a laugh. “He already had a perfectly nice new house, and then he shows me this place after his renovation was underway. Everything was covered in plastic. It was a mess.”
The couple married five years later in 2011.
The house became Herron’s long-term passion project, remodeled extensively in phases that included carefully chosen and whimsical midcentury decor. Both men, however, bonded with the neighborhood, which includes original owners, new families and extended families, along with a school, churches, a park that is undergoing improvements, and shopping centers, crowned by the South Austin edition of Central Market, an informal social magnet for many neighbors.
Some newcomers choose Western Trails because of its relative proximity to Central Austin, which, depending on the route, is 6 or 7 miles to the northeast. Others came in part because the original developers and later residents preserved so many of the ancient trees, especially those along Williamson Creek and its tributaries, and they cared for the landscaping along the gently curling suburban streets.
And some, like Herron, whose renovated house was featured in Atomic Ranch Magazine, a publication dedicated to midcentury design, could not resist the low ranch-style homes with their open plans, informal arrangements and generous backyards.
“I grew up in a home built in this era,” Herron says. “It feels very much like my home. There’s also a financial angle. I could not buy into other midcentury Austin neighborhoods like Barton Hills, Balcones Drive, Windsor Park, or even parts of Allandale.”
Any city is partly defined by its changes. And Western Trails — loosely defined as lying between Menchaca Road, Jones Road, Western Trails Boulevard and Westgate Boulevard — experienced rapid change even as it got underway, and continues to evolve today.
Houses that went for the mid-$200,000s when Herron bought into the neighborhood now go for almost $700,000.
Frank Mang, who lives across the street from Herron and Yanecek, says he feels that he got a great deal on his house in 1963, the same year he married Betsy Oldman Mang, in part because the 7-year-old subdivision was not selling quickly at the time.
“We were right at the edge of town in 1963,” he recalls. “Not a whole lot of buildings. The builder ran out of money. So the developer took the project back.”
How did one get out to the new subdivision in the 1950s and ‘60s? Don’t think Ben White Boulevard, now a freeway that was named after a popular Austin City Council member who served from 1951 to 1967. Early on, it was a two-lane road known as Allred Lane, named for Sam Allred, a Travis County commissioner who owned a good deal of land in the area. A smaller road nearby is now named for Allred.
South Lamar Boulevard at this end was then the Old Fredericksburg Road, one of the only paths through the rugged Balcones Fault heading west or southwest.
“Western Trails” — a history by Jimmy Hansen and Mark Wolf written while they were students at Porter Junior High School in 1981 and now housed in the Austin History Center — reports that the area was still rolling, wooded ranchland in the 1950s. Houses and stores were few and far between.
“A general store was owned by Ellison von Rosenberg, a descendant of Karl Wilhelm von Rosenberg, who immigrated to Texas from Germany in 1849,” they write. “He was a topographer for the Confederacy until 1865; he then opened a real estate office.”
Other old families on this land included the Turleys and the Wilsons. The latter family lived in a house reputedly constructed by slaves near what is now Stassney Lane.
The Western Trails subdivision proper started with a house on Lasso Path in 1955. It was built by Albert Strong in partnership with the Buford Stewart Agency. Stewart, born in 1911, lived in South Austin all his life. The developer and civic leader died in 2008 at age 97.
Thematic street names were grouped in three areas, inspired by hills, oaks and the Old West. Joslin Elementary School, recently threatened with closure but then removed from the closure list, and new churches, along with recreation and shopping centers, followed soon after. The older homes were made of brick and stone, the later ones of wood. Typically, the new houses broke down into three small bedrooms, a kitchen and dining area, two bathrooms, a living room, a den, a double garage or carport, and plenty of closet space.
As with elsewhere in Central Texas, the residents dealt regularly with flooding and erosion. The native live oaks and pecans were joined by Arizona ashes and silver maples as well as a few out-of-place palm trees.
“This (area) is especially good for senior citizens,” the short history declares, “who do not have to go far from their homes to get what they need.”
A May 11, 1958, article in the American-Statesman’s real estate section took special note of a promotional “Talking House” in Western Trails outfitted with speakers in each room to explain its features.
According to the accompanying description, Western Trails was “planned for beauty and safety of its residents. Note the curved streets which follow a modern subdivision trend to eliminate fast driving and ensure privacy. They also break street monotony.”
Homes, school, parks, families
To a certain degree, like other Austin neighborhoods, social life in Western Trails revolves around its schools, parks, shopping centers and places of worship. Yet it all begins with the housing.
Some of the original residents remember the convulsions of the district’s early years.
“Jerry Halderman, owner of these homes along this street, took them over from the bank,” says Mang, 83, a native of Crystal City. “Halderman lived next door for a short period of time. When the houses weren't moving, he moved in. Back then, we had deed restrictions that only single-family homes could be built. We didn't want them to build a bunch of apartments. And we liked the price: $23,000. That's how bad they wanted to get rid of them.”
Betsy and Frank raised their three children in their low-lying house with lush vegetation out back, despite the area’s alkaline soil and tricky water flow.
“It's been a good neighborhood,” Mang says. “But we are getting some break-ins. I don't like that. We got these security cameras so you can see who is breaking in. Probably not worse than anywhere else in town.”
The biggest drama came in May 1975.
“A tornado came through and did a little damage,” Mang says, “and that was that. It knocked out a couple of windows, and we had to put on a new roof. We were driving on U.S. 290 when it started and it was hailing so hard, you couldn’t hear anyone talk. It’s the only tornado I’ve been in.”
Allred, the Travis County commissioner whose name was transferred to another South Austin street, donated the land for an elementary school and adjacent park in the 1950s.
“The park and school were named for Jerry Joslin, an Austin police officer who worked with schools to develop safety patrols,” says resident and volunteer Sally Baulch, who has organized for improvements of the greenspace with the Austin Parks Foundation. “He died in 1953 in a car crash when the school and park were being built.”
When the Austin school district was ordered in the 1980s to desegregate, the school became a South Austin-wide fifth and sixth grade campus, and the park gained a gravel track, volleyball courts and eventually a tennis court. The tennis courts and track are still well used; the volleyball courts are gone.
“When I got involved in 2012, the park was showing its age,” Baulch says. “Called Joslin Playground Park, the play facility was inside the school grounds behind a fence. The picnic tables were warped and the track rutted. The heritage trees were the only natural feature.”
As a park adopter, Baulch led efforts to mulch the trees and plant a garden around the park sign. The parks department’s urban forest division planted new trees to supplement the heritage oaks. Austin City Council freed up money for a playscape and track redo.
“The friends group worked with Austin Parks Foundation to bring in a fitness zone in 2017,” Baulch says. “Neighbors advocated for resurfacing the tennis courts and soon shade cloth. So since 2012, the neighborhood has made a difference.”
Among the new families who enjoy these amenities are Josephine and Paul Tidwell, along with their three very active children, Carter, 8, Ellena, 5, and Wesley, 3.
Josephine, 40, who grew up Florida and studied molecular biology, said her family first showed interest in a house on Pack Saddle, one of Western Trails’ busier connective streets.
“I was sad about not getting that one,” she says, “but it had high traffic and other problems. We knew we couldn't have a family there with its steep driveway and stairwells all over the house.”
They ended up with a home near the Mangs as well as Herron and Yanecek. Now a stay-at-home mom, she loves everything about the Austin neighborhood.
“You can walk to school, walk to farmers market, walk to restaurants,” she says. “And we’re only a mile to all those shops on Brodie Lane. The kids love the yard. We get random door knocks on the door wondering if we are running a day care center.”
Paul Tidwell, 45, grew up in Houston and works as an executive at a software consulting company.
“This place was on market for a while,” he says. “It was in bad shape, but the floor plan at least was clear. In retrospect, we’re pleased with this one on a cul-de-sac. And location was important. I work near the Capitol. To start, we drew a commute radius around the Capitol, and this was in it.”
Like some of his neighbors, for Tidwell, Western Trails living comes with a nostalgia factor.
“My grandparents’ house was a 1960s ranch house,” he says. “When we walked in, it was super reminiscent of that era. We have two big living areas, and the kids can roller-skate or Big Wheel through the house. Anyway, South Austin always felt like home.”
It helps that the Western Trails Neighborhood Association organizes a monthly social from March to October. Neighbors sign up to host the event in their front yards or backyards and bring along their favorite beverage and a snack to share, Herron says.
Herron, 56, and Yanecek, 63, both grew up in the Midwest. Yet they have embraced the Austin lifestyle, including the University of Texas Longhorns.
Herron has become involved in neighborhood organizing and socializing. He notices a trend toward increased ethnic diversity and more LGBTQ neighbors. According to city of Austin demographer Ryan Robinson, five-year estimates for Western Trails for the years 2014-2018 put its population at 4,800. It is overwhelmingly white, primarily between the ages of 25 and 60, although approximately 500 children under 5 are counted, which supports anecdotal reports of increased families with children in the area.
A topic of not infrequent neighborhood discussion is some of the city’s largest camps for people experiencing homelessness. Currently, they string along under U.S. 290, mainly between Menchaca Road and Westgate Boulevard. A committee of the Western Trails Neighborhood Association addresses safety, health care and litter as well as potential place-making for the homeless.
Nearby Westgate Mall makes a great deal of difference to the area’s quiet cohesion. Started in 1957, it was later converted into an air-conditioned indoor mall with a single large hallway flanked by stores — one of the original BookStops, a former big-box bookstore chain, was there. Then the mall was rearranged as an outdoor center again in the 1990s to include the city’s second Central Market.
“It's a lovely neighborhood,” Yanecek says. “We are close enough to downtown to get there easily. But it still feels small. And frankly, with Central Market within walking distance, we go there all the time, not just for groceries but just to pick up something to eat. We run into people we know every time.”
Michael Barnes has written more than 30 histories of the following Central Texas neighborhoods: Austin’s freedom colonies, Block House Creek, Bouldin, Circle C Ranch, Clarksville/Old West Austin, Crestview, Dove Springs, Guadalupe, Hemphill Park/Aldridge Place, Heritage, Highland Park West, Holly Street, Hyde Park, Lakeway, Montopolis, Mueller, Northwest Hills, Rosedale, Rosewood, Old Austin, Old Bastrop, Old Buda, Old Lockhart, Old Pflugerville, Old Round Rock, Old Wimberley, St. John’s/Highland, Sun City Georgetown, Travis Heights, Travis Heights East, University Hills and Windsor Park.