It’s said that some early Christian baptisms were performed in the nude, signifying the restoration of the subject’s soul to its state of innocence at birth. To be naked without shame is to live free from original sin, at least in the biblical sense — and in the Austin of the 1970s, a legendary decade of hippie and outlaw amalgamation now considered responsible for much of the city’s persistent cultural identity, Terry “Liberty” Parker arrived on a mission to baptize our counterculture’s highly unashamed faithful in a 70,000-gallon apartment pool on Manor Road. (A biker was later stabbed there by two rival gang members and bled out on the diving board, but that wasn’t Terry’s fault.)
A former Jehovah’s Witness who left the faith with a profound disdain for what he called the “authoritarian lifestyle” of its strict moral code, Parker subsequently dedicated his life to libertarian ideals, both politically and philosophically — he was dedicated enough, in fact, to change his middle name (“Liberty”).
Along with a stint as chair of the Travis County Libertarian Party, his decades-long crusade against the encroachment of various civil liberties in Austin included organizing a healthy opposition to an area pastor’s petition calling for the prohibition of massage parlors, fighting civic efforts to impose obscenity regulations on local television, and founding a “Sexual Offenders Club” intended to satirize an outdated local ordinance criminalizing carnal relations between unmarried people.
But Parker’s belief in the right to nudity, as a logical expression of a human being’s natural state of ownership over their own body, was the principle that would define his legacy. Though the last couple of paragraphs make him sound like a maniac, the guy was deeper than a local crank — after his religious life, he worked briefly as an executive in New York, and by 1976 was running an Austin photo lab described as extremely lenient with its customers regarding the types of pictures it would develop.
An aerial view of the former Canyon Villa apartments, its nude-friendly days long gone.
This very libertarian knack for entrepreneurship led Parker in 1976 to approach the owners of Canyon Villa, an 18-unit apartment complex on Grand Canyon Drive in the St. Johns neighborhood of East Austin, with an interesting idea — and though the exact details of what likely began as a terribly awkward conversation are lost to history, he eventually convinced them to hire him as the complex manager and permit his personal vision for transforming it into a clothing-optional “liberated” community.
The now nudity-friendly apartment building, described by local news as perhaps the first of its kind in the nation, was solidly in the black with all units occupied in only six months after losing money for years. “Rather than trying to convince them to do this because it’s the right thing to do or anything like that, I just told them I could double their profits,” he explained to Austin American-Statesman reporter Glenn Garvin.
Parker doesn’t refer to the complex as “nudist” and tries to discourage anyone else from using the term. “Nudists have strict rules that there’s no touching at all among the members. Balls! When we have a party here people do whatever they always do at parties. Nudists are just exchanging one set of rigid controls for another.”
— Austin American-Statesman, December 12, 1976
Parker wasn’t finished, though — after all, you can only fit so many people in 18 apartments, whether or not they’re wearing clothes. In 1977, he took charge of the Manor Villa Apartments, a 78-unit building at 2401 Manor Road, hoping to replicate the clothing-optional experiment on a larger scale. It wasn’t like the owners of the complex had much to lose — in addition to the drug deals and property crime, the 1965 double murder of University of Texas sorority sisters Susan Rigsby and Shirly Stark at the strangling hands of fellow student James Cross inside his apartment at Manor Villa meant the UT shuttle bus refused to stop there even a decade later.
Keeping this grim history in mind, almost any change was welcome at what Parker would soon rename the New Manor Apartments. Owing to the nudity, media attention arrived swiftly, and not just from local perverts — in April 1977, three months after the grand re-opening, the New York Times called New Manor “an urban renewal miracle of sorts.” Horned up reporters from papers around the state found themselves poolside, and articles appeared in Playboy and at least one other adult magazine the Austin American-Statesman politely declined to name.
In the three weeks since Manor Villa reopened, he said, apartments have been snapped up at the rate of about one a day by a wide variety of tenants — married couples, those just living together, single people and homosexuals, a group that Mr. Parker said embraced political attitudes ranging “from hippie to redneck.”
“All that diversity works,” he said with the satisfied smile of a laboratory scientist whose experiment has just produced the desired result. “The people physically coexist. It’s not total freedom, but it’s a relative degree of freedom compared to what’s outside.”
— The New York Times, April 1977
New Manor’s diverse lineup of residents included self-described rednecks and freaks, artists and students, stuffy professionals and deadbeats alike, and that contrast was sort of the point — without the categories and class signals of clothing, the idea goes, it’s impossible to tell what the person in front of you does for a living other than, say, getting naked by the pool. The apartment’s most famous tenant during this free-spirited period was probably Widespread Panic drummer Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz, but outside of Parker himself the community found its most prominent local figure and nudity advocate in “Crazy Carl” Hickerson, who you could best describe as a street performer, perennial candidate for city government, and lighthearted exhibitionist.
Later in 1977, Parker’s girlfriend Joy Galineo began operating an unaccredited elementary school called Function out of her home at the complex for the children of New Manor residents, including three of her own. “State officials reluctantly confirmed to the Austin American-Statesman that ‘weird loopholes’ make the school perfectly legal — and the children who attend it will be exempt from Texas truancy laws when the regular school term starts later this month,” the paper proclaimed. Parker and Galineo soon found themselves in Chicago promoting the school’s ideals, and the success of New Manor itself, to the studio audience of the Phil Donahue Show.
“It’s not sin city,” said resident J. David Moeller, a former radio disc jockey. “On a warm Sunday morning, you might see a couple making love in the pool. But it just looks like they’re embracing. People are pretty discreet around here.”
— Austin American-Statesman, February 26, 1978
Regardless of your dedication to personal freedom, the notion of a clothing-optional elementary school might give you pause, and that’s probably a good instinct in this case. The question of where exactly New Manor was expected to draw its boundaries, even in a society liberated from rules, quickly appeared in the workings of Parker’s experiment — and the answer he provided led to his downfall, at least as manager.
A problem arose, however, when complaints reached the founder — and until last week, the manager — Terry Parker about a resident who was molesting children and photographing them in his apartment.
Parker, a former chairman of the Travis County Libertarian Party, defended the man’s rights to stay in the complex because he had not violated the “physical aggression truce” — something that residents agree to when they move in, and that basically says they can do whatever they like as long as they don’t “physically aggress” against anyone else.
Gene Berkman, who replaced Parker as manager, admitted that the issue of child protection is “a gray area in libertarianism,” and he’s not sure how he would have acted in that case. But Berkman, like Parker, is committed to the ideals of individual responsibility and minimal government.
— Austin American-Statesman, February 26, 1978
Parker, though ousted as manager for sticking to some of the very wrong guns, remained a New Manor resident — and two years after its founding, saw the first undeniable violation of that physical aggression truce he took so seriously. The August 1979 death of 34-year-old resident Roy Allen Miller — stabbed at the New Manor pool and left to die on the diving board by two other residents, David McVey and Mark David Matthews, for reasons apparently related to biker gangs and/or their associated methamphetamine trade — forced change from even the community’s most liberated.
Today, under the new ownership of a Los Angeles-based investor, the complex is being redecorated and its idealistic no-rules “non-aggression truce” replaced by rules to live by, nude or clothed.
Longtime residents say the killing was an isolated dispute between some transient bikers. Jerry Derbyshire, 31, an Ohio transplant, one-year resident and freelance photographer who was hired as the new property manager, said it was the result of a laid-back lifestyle that had become too laid back.
“We’re getting rid of the riff-raff,” he said, “the transients trying to get their s— together who were turning the place into a crash pad. We’re cleaning up, fixing up, evicting slow-payers and seeking more families.”
“Before, essentially all the management did was keep the pool water warm enough to make love in. Now, we have security deposits, maintenance and a straight, sensible business.”
— Austin American-Statesman, October 7, 1979
Though all of this regulation arguably altered Parker’s original vision beyond his personal recognition, it seemed to work out okay — the New Manor Apartments, despite a few hiccups here and there, remained clothing-optional until 1988, when a change in ownership forced residents to cover up. (Parker, demonstrating his talent for functioning just fine in the square world, had moved into a downtown condo by then.)
Some dedicated New Manorites briefly tried rebuilding the dream at an apartment complex further north, but the magic didn’t come with them. Former residents, including Parker, held several reunions in the 1990s, but things reportedly never quite hit the same high notes as they did poolside in the late 1970s.
Parker died of a brain tumor in 2007, his passion for a particularly hands-off brand of personal liberty seemingly never dimming after decades of letters to the editor and almost-daily calls on local talk radio. The building at 2401 Manor Road still stands, its apartments recently converted to condos and now known as East University Place.
Author Lars Eighner, who lived at New Manor at its peak in 1979, provided a level-headed assessment of the community’s liberated life on his blog in 2013. “There was a hard-core group of nudists who never wore a stitch of clothing within the gates, even when it was a bit nippy out, but by far most of the residents wore something most of the time except for swimming,” he wrote. “Nonetheless, everyone I knew seemed to have got past any preconceived notions they may have had about nudity and nudism. It just is not very sexy, even when there are otherwise attractive people about.”