Beating the Heat:
How Early Houstonians Kept it Cool
Every year, as the temperature and humidity rise in Houston, we race to our thermostats to lower the temperature and seek relief. But what would we have done if we lived before the age of air conditioning? A look at the architectural details of early Houston residences reveals the way in which Houstonians of the 19th and early 20th century beat the heat. By examining three of the houses at The Heritage Society in Sam Houston Park, we can see the ways in which architectural elements enabled cross ventilation, removal of hot air, and exposure to breezes.
To combat the heat, the 1847 Kellum Noble House has high ceilings; a broad, two story porch; and center halls with doors on opposing ends. These doors played a crucial role in ventilation. Because they were in line with one another, opening both would allow cross ventilation, cooling the halls and the house. Doors on either end of both the first story and second story center halls offered the residents of Kellum-Noble respite from high Houston temperatures.
The 1868 Pillot House, with its high ceilings, long center hall, covered breezeway with a wall of louvered screens, and transom windows above doors, kept its residents cool during the oppressive heat of summer. The transom windows were hinged and were operated by maneuvering casement adjusters, which would allow the window to be opened in various positions. Transom windows are present above both the exterior and interior doors of Pillot House. As the hot air in the room rose, residents could open the transom windows and keep the doors closed, keeping temperatures down while maintaining privacy.
The 1905 Staiti House was originally designed with high ceilings, large windows, and broad verandas, all of which cooled the house when temperatures rose. When the house was struck by a hurricane in 1915, the owner, Henry T. Staiti, commissioned Houston architect Alfred C. Finn to complete the repairs and design alterations to the home. These alterations furthered the house’s ability to keep its occupants cool. Mr. Finn’s designs included the addition of sun rooms and sleeping porches along the side and back of the house. These screened, outdoor rooms enabled the Staitis to escape the mosquitoes while enjoying the breezes offered outside the walls of the house.
Whether the aim was cross ventilation, removal of hot air, or exposure to breezes, architectural elements of early Houston residences enabled the people of Houston to keep cool during the hot and humid times of year.