August is upon us again and with it brings sweltering temperatures and humidity that makes you feel like you should have brought flippers with you. We are incredibly lucky that we can escape the heat and relax in air conditioning. But what did people do to alleviate high temps before the invention of air conditioning? Was there any way to cool off? As it turns out, there are many different ways that southern architects used home design to help residents feel cooler.
In New Orleans many colonial and antebellum homes make use of outdoor space. This is a no brainer. It’s hot inside, so come outside.There are a few different types of these outdoor living spaces to think about:
Porches on the ground floor vary widely from just running the length of the house, or wrapping around the structure. These are (by definition) covered areas that adjoin the entrance to the home. This is a great place to put chairs or even a swing. Covered porches are important because they not only shade the folks sitting outside, but they also shade the air coming into the home through doors and windows. When it’s this hot, every degree counts.
Up above the first floor, whether they are known as balconies (second or third story platform supported with brackets) or galleries (second or third story platform supported by posts), these outdoor living spaces were widely used by the families to enjoy while trying to catch a breeze. These spaces were used for meals, conversation and even sleeping. In some cases these balconies and galleries even have a roof above to provide shade and protect from the rain.
In the French Quarter, you’ll find amazing courtyards tucked away from the street, behind the buildings. These secret places are another great way to get the families outside, but also allow for privacy. These spaces are cooler due to the shading provided by the tall walls and tropical foliage.
One of the best ways to keep a house cool is to design the layout to allow for airflow. One of the most well known “New Orleans Style” house is the Shotgun Cottage which is called a shotgun because (supposedly) every door is lined up so that you could shoot a gun from the front door to the back door and not hit anything. Now, don’t worry, we don’t need to fire a gun through our homes, but instead opening all your doors would create a breezeway. The same applies to center hall cottages – they are built to allow air a great chance to come in, travel through the house and carry on out the back door.
Many homes that were built before air conditioning are raised above the ground a good two feet or so. We don’t have basements in New Orleans on account of the high water table, but we do have crawl spaces. On the front of these raised homes, you may notice some decorative cast iron grills used to ventilate the space down below the house. On the sides of the home these pretty cast iron grills are sometimes used, or in many cases wooden lattice covers up the spaces in the foundation. Subfloors and insulation were not really used in house building, as it was important to promote air flow. In fact, I once lived in an apartment where I could see the ground through the floor to the ground below though the little cracks between the floorboards.
Throughout the city, many homes have very tall windows. In the French Quarter, many of these windows are referred to as French Doors because they open in or out on side hinges, many cases onto a balcony or gallery. In the Garden District you may notice that there are more windows that are slid open from the bottom. These windows are called single hung windows. Sometimes you’ll even find double hung windows which can be opened on the top and the bottom. However these windows open is not nearly as important as the size of them – they are very tall in order to allow in as much air as possible.
Upon entering homes built before the invention of air conditioning, one can be surprised at the height of the ceiling. As we all learned in science class heat rises, so it is important to give the heat a place to go. Ceilings average 10-16 feet tall, and I have to admit, after living in a home with a 12 foot high ceiling for so long, I feel a little uncomfortable in a standard 8 foot tall room. Oh well, such is life!
While the house design was to keeping things cooler, there were also options in furnishing that could be employed to assist. A visit to the James Gallier House shows guests what dressing a home for summer meant in the mid 19th century. Heavy draperies of velvet and silk were replaced by light linen or lace curtains, which acted sort of like screens on the windows. These light curtains allowed air to come in, but helped to keep the bugs out- a little. Mosquito netting was still widely used. In the place of thick woolen rugs, grass mats covered the floors. Who wants to bury their feet in deep rugs when it is 100 degrees out? Richly upholstered furniture was covered in light linen or cotton cloths, for two important reasons. On one hand residents wanted to protect their fancy furniture from sweaty bodies and on the other, to keep people a little more comfortable on lighter fabrics. These little tricks would be reversed later in the year, when residents prepared their homes for winter. All of the heavier fabrics would be very handy at battling the draftiness of the home.
If all of these things didn’t keep one cool enough in the summer, the New Orleans Item came to the rescue with recommendations in their July 14, 1914 edition. They claimed that the best thing a woman could do battle the heat was to prepare foods that would not necessitate heating up the coal burning stove. They further recommend that washing dishes should be “kept to a minimum…and serve all meals, but special state dinners, on paper picnic plates. You can buy these plates by the pound- about 25 for less than 15 cents, according to the size – and if you take care to get those with parchment lining you can use each plate for two courses before throwing it away.” So here it is folks, just stop washing dishes, it’s too hot!
The Modern Era
All of these architectural adaptations can be found all over the Southern United States. Now that we have air conditioning all of these modifications to “beat the heat” get in the way of modern efficiency. Tall ceilings might allow hot air to rise, but they also expand the space that needs to be cooled. Tall, single pane windows let in heat, while letting cool air out. There are ways to make older homes more efficient, but homeowners should want to keep the historic integrity of their homes so major changes like full window replacement is a bad idea. Some things that can be done include adding insulation under the floors, caulking the windows, and using weather stripping to seal up doors.
Truly, the best advice for summer in the south is to just accept it. Pour yourself a cold glass of lemonade, sit on your porch, and relax in the knowledge that crisp cool air conditioning is just on the other side of the door, should you decide to change your mind about sitting outside in the summer.