Keeping It Cool

Savvy New Orleanians beat the heat

Tulane University’s Gibson Hall on St. Charles Avenue

photo courtesy of the historic new orleans collection

Linda Santi’s utility bills average about $24 a month – even in summer. With an HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) system to be envied, Santi, the interim chief executive officer of New Orleans’ Neighborhood Housing Services, is one of the beneficiaries of a remarkable project.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Make It Right Foundation, most famously supported by actor Brad Pitt, sponsored the construction of homes in the 9th Ward. Renowned architects were charged with the goal of creating suitable residences to meet New Orleans homeowners’ needs, while using ecologically sound methods.

Santi’s home is a duplex, designed by architect Frank Gehry. Some of her low utility costs result from solar panels producing electricity. “The lower 9th Ward has more solar panels than just about anywhere,” Santi admits. Hers, however, are a little different. “My solar panels don’t just lie on the roof – they also serve as a canopy on the upper deck, the third level of the house. And they clearly work well, they have been made water repellant and you can be up there in the rain – we’ve made it through some tropical events, too.”

The house also has a second floor deck, “That’s where I hang my laundry – I don’t know if that adds to cooling, but there’s a wonderful smell to fresh dried clothes” she says. The house is raised so a breeze can blow underneath, and the windows are positioned for cross ventilation.

Santi’s previous residence was one of the “Steamboat Houses” in the Holy Cross neighborhood. In that 19th century home (with its upper floor mimicking a steamboat’s top deck), Santi also enjoyed low utility bills and energy efficiency. “It was right on the levee, the second floor had floor to ceiling windows, you could walk around the gallery and catch the river breeze. The lower floors were tile and the walls were glazed brick: it was natural insulation.”

As Santi suggested, historic New Orleans houses were designed with weather in mind. High ceilings, windows aligned to catch breezes, covered porches and galleries, window shutters – all kept air circulating and direct sun off interior rooms, says Ann Masson. The former director of Gallier House, Masson nots that this was one of the first house museums to “dress the house for summer.” That included changing to lighter summer curtains and rolling up woolen carpets (and storing them with tobacco leaves, camphor or pepper to keep out insects) and covering floors with straw matting. Additional summer decorating involved putting white slipcovers on furniture, and wrapping gauze or mosquito netting around chandeliers, clocks and pictures to avoid insect spots.

Attorney Walter Carroll recalled that in older New Orleans homes with double-hung windows, the top and bottom sections could both be opened “creating a convection current to bring cool night air inside.” Opening the transoms over interior doorways could add to ventilation.

Awnings over windows were common (Tulane University’s Gibson Hall on St. Charles Avenue had curved canvas awnings to fit its curved window tops). Interior window shades could also be used, and, according to Masson, were sometimes painted decoratively.

According to Carroll, another past hot weather custom involved the closing of Orleans Parish Civil District Court for the summer – leaving one judge in town to handle things until the fall.
A sure way to stay cool involved ice. In early years it was shipped from the north and stored in New Orleans ice houses. The first commercial ice-making venture was tried here in 1868. By 1903, ice was being manufactured in quantity by the Pelican Ice Company, which had begun in 1870 as an ice storage facility and is still in business today. Besides being chipped and served in drinks, ice could be used for cooling.

One of the late Ruth (Mrs. Eben) Hardie’s favorite memories was when she and her husband and their friend Bill Monroe (once head of “Meet the Press” on NBC-TV) spent an evening seated around a block of ice in a washtub, over which a fan was blowing.

New Orleans churches, according to Carroll, relied on ice to keep things cool for congregants. An underground vault near Rayne Memorial Methodist Church on St. Charles Avenue was stocked with ice and used to pipe cool air into the sanctuary. The St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church used a refrigeration machine in its underground storage center to chill brined water for cooling the church.

According to Masson, another cooling feature of New Orleans architecture could be brick or masonry walls. “The walls could act as a wick that draws water up through the building. When it evaporates from the walls, it acts like a terra cotta wine cooler.” Those huge pottery jars in old patios served a similar purpose in cooling water.

Carroll recalled that the predecessor grocery at Langenstein’s Arabella Street location tried lawn sprinklers on the roof – leaks put an end to that. Somewhat more successful was the effort of the Boston Club in having a staff member stationed on the roof aiming a hose at the brick wall of the then-adjacent Harmony Club to provide cooling in the building’s side driveway area.

Mel and Gasper Schiro both have memories of cooling summer strategies. Mel recalls her family’s solution to the heat: “We would go out to the lake and we’d float on the inner tubes from my Daddy’s car.”

Gasper Schiro mentions seersucker suits and straw hats, and going across the lake. “My uncle’s house in Bay St. Louis had a screened sleeping porch. And, the house had a long side hall – I don’t think that hall ever really got hot.”

“We ate a lot of ice cream,” Gasper recalls.  
 
One New Orleans favorite can still beat the heat: nectar ice cream sodas. Stay cool and think pink!


Flowing the Air

In the June of 1911, the Maison Blanche department store entrance on Canal Street attracted a crowd with a draft of cool air. As The Daily Picayune noted, the store had installed a system that forced air from a rooftop opening through a “screen” of flowing iced water, and then circulated the chilled air in ductwork inside the store. Finally, at ground level, an exhaust took the cooled air outside, where onlookers “stand in about the same position as they would in front of a stove, and make the same gestures, in an effort to cool off, as they would to get warm.”

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