The Northfield Neighborhood
In 1940, the area that we now call Northfield was mostly empty space. On what is now Koenig Avenue, there was a small airport operated by "Doc" Haile. There was an orchard to the south. And there were just a few houses scattered about. During World War II, apparently there was some G. I. training at the Haile Airport, but other than that, there was little activity in our neighborhood. It was, effectively, open country outside of Austin.
Most of Northfield was built during the years immediately following World War II. After the war, soldiers were returning to the U.S. and starting families, and many thousands of them were also taking advantage of the G. I. Bill which gave soldiers money to help them pursue a college education. In Austin, this created a very sudden, overwhelming demand for affordable family housing near the University of Texas. Open land beyond the old suburbs like Hyde Park was quickly developed with very inexpensive, small houses. The typical design for these houses was an 800 square foot floor-plan featuring 2 bedrooms and one bathroom.
The hasty construction style left a lot to be desired. Cedar posts were gathered from the area, and were used as the foundations for the houses -- cut to length with the bark still on, they were usually only set about six inches into the ground. Then, a framework of beams was nailed together on top of the cedar posts. Directly on those beams, an oak tongue-and-groove floor was nailed from one edge of the house to the other -- there usually was no sub-floor. Then the floor would be covered in tar paper to protect the finish. On top of that, walls were built. Then the roof. When the building was finished, the tar paper was ripped up from inside the house, revealing the wooden floor.
Fortunately, the quality of the materials available at that time was remarkable. Even without a sub-floor, the oak floors in most houses have held up for over 60 years. The old-growth pine used for the walls was often so hard you could barely drive a nail into it. And the lap-board used for decking on most roofs was straight and strong. Despite poor construction techniques, most of the houses in the Northfield neighborhood have held together very well for 60 years, and could probably last another 60 years with proper care and maintenance.
Remnants of Tenements and Shacks
The neighborhood had always been in one "flight path" or another. With the Haile Airport on the north edge of the neighborhood and the Austin Air Service operating out of a field to the east, planes were flying over Northfield long before it was a neighborhood. However, as Austin grew, and as the size of jets grew, the air noise became more and more of a problem. Haile Airport closed in 1948, shortly after most of the houses in our neighborhood were built. But Mueller Airport, which opened in 1930, became bigger and busier.
By the time Mueller was closed in 1999, full-sized jets were landing or taking off up to ten times an hour from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. every day. The noise from the jets made Northfield a fairly undesirable neighborhood for more affluent Austinites. Even with it's ideal geographic location just 3 miles from U.T. and 5 miles from the heart of downtown, much of the "flightpath" neighborhood was shunned by home-buyers.
When the announcement was made that the Mueller Airport would be moving soon, property prices in Northfield began shooting up. Houses that were valued at $60,000 were suddenly worth twice that amount. Most properties in the area had been used as inexpensive rental property, but suddenly there was an influx of owner-occupants.
At the time, the Austin Chronicle described the flightpath -- already increasing in property value -- as "remnants of tenements and shacks" (vol18/issue26), and said that anything that happened in our neighborhood was bound to be an improvement. The Chronicle writer went on to say that "nobody is really interested in tying the market's hands," suggesting that a bull-dozer and large-scale redevelopment would lead to a dramatic improvement over the distasteful homes that were lurking in the flightpath at the time.
All-in-all, that was an extremely uncharitable description. True, many of the houses were suffering from some neglect as low-cost rental properties, but the houses were diamonds in the rough, the huge trees and big yards were a real attraction, and most of all, the flavor of the neighborhood was pure Austin -- funky, eclectic, and very relaxed. Fortunately, nobody paid the Chronicle any attention -- at that time, the average length of time for a house in our neighborhood to remain on the market was less than a week.
Keepin' it Weird
As the Northfield neighborhood very rapidly increased in value and prestige, some big changes started to happen. Some houses were fixed up and restored. Many houses were expanded with additions or garage apartments. Other houses were torn down and replaced. Some businesses closed. Some businesses opened. Many affluent residents moved in and began investing in a long neglected neighborhood. And unfortunately, that meant that many low-income residents found they could no longer afford to live in the area.
As we look forward to a new era in the old flightpath, we find ourselves trying to hold on to some of the vestiges of the past. We find ourselves trying to improve the neighborhood and improve the quality of life in our area while simultaneously trying to preserve a funky, relaxed little neighborhood deep in the heart of Austin.
Read more about the History of Northfield and North Central Austin
Information about the old Haile Airport on Koenig
Photographs from around the neighborhood