Bright Ideas | Staying Cool


Denizen of the French Quarter, Peter Patout knows classical Southern homes. As both an architecture historian and licensed historic property realtor, Patout says there’s much to be gleaned from the structures of old New Orleans houses. Going back to the early roots of the city, new inhabitants embraced design elements that were beautiful and practical; that embraced gracious living while cooling down the house. With summer upon us, Patout shares here how historic home design can inspire us, particularly in staying cool during the sizzling summer months.

New Orleans homes of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries were designed in response to climate. The earliest vernacular homes were designed in what became known as French Creole Louisiana architecture. Then, it evolved into neoclassical, to Victorian architecture, to bungalows, and finally to midcentury modern. I grew up in a midcentury home that my parents built. In the beginning, we didn’t have air conditioning, so from a young age I was comfortable using fans and the porch to beat the heat.

Shutters were included on most of New Orleans’s earliest homes. They were solid or louvered shutters of great quality and style. They also served as built-in hurricane protection, and still do. As Hurricane Katrina approached, we closed our shutters to protect us from the storm. Closing the shutters is a wonderful (and free) way to provide shade and coolness. Plus, you can paint shutters in myriad hues to add a festive, fun pop of color to your home. My shutters were inspired by a trip to Cuba, where I discovered the most impeccable shade of sky blue.

Ceiling fans are used for circulation. With the advent of electricity, many homeowners invested in ceiling fans, which arrived in the late 19th century. Transom windows over doors were also used to further ventilate rooms. Today, the iconic Southern fans and transom windows are still used for moving stale air and providing a light wind. I’ve never bought a new fan, but for those who prefer new, I advocate a four-blade Hunter fan, which lasts forever. I always am sure to invest in vintage fans. Historic ceiling fans come in a variety of colors and are great quality. Usually I opt for a flat black fan with wood blades, though I also invested in a cerulean blue fan with a yellow stripe on each blade.

Balconies and porches add charm, while serving as wonderful places to visit and catch a breeze off of the Mississippi. European immigrants first built homes sans balconies and porches, but quickly learned that the weather was a challenge. They added balconies and porches to the early architecture of the area, providing eyebrows for the homes so the sun doesn’t hit the main part of the houses. Balconies and porches also provide outdoor rooms for sleeping and entertaining al fresco. This tradition has carried on in some fashion throughout our time.

Plant aromatic gardens filled with confederate jasmine and antique roses. In the 18th and 19th centuries, they would consciously plant big gardens to combat foul odors. Settlers brought gorgeous flowers indigenous to Asia and Europe, such as Souvenir de la Malmaison roses, and planted them in Creole gardens. With the humidity, malodorous smells can still waft through our neighborhoods. I suggest planting roses, jasmine and gardenia because they’re romantic and nostalgic.

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