The Big Chill Out: A History of Air Conditioning

By late September heat-weary residents of south Louisiana are eager to flick the air conditioner off-switch. Fall technically begins on the 22nd of the month with the autumnal equinox, but along the Gulf Coast it’s known that tolerable temperatures will remain elusive for many more weeks. The Hermann-Grima + Gallier Historic House Museums invite the public to cool off and stimulate the mind as the hot weather wanes with a lively, informative lecture by architectural historian Elizabeth Porterfield on the history of air conditioning, an invention of little-known origin that radically changed lifestyles in the South over the course of the 20th century.

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Ice was harvested in New England lakes and shipped by boat to New Orleans in the antebellum era. This illustration appeared in Gleason’s Drawing Room Companion, 1851.

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Long before air conditioning was a reality, James Gallier Sr. experimented with removing hot air from his house by installing decorative air vents in the ceiling of his French Quarter home.

Porterfield’s lecture, “The Big Chill Out: Air Conditioning’s Transformation on the Way We Live and Build,” will be held in the visitor center of the Gallier House, 1126 Royal Street in the French Quarter, on Friday, September 30, at 6 p.m. The talk will be jointly sponsored by the Louisiana Architectural Foundation. For much of the past year the Gallier House’s sister museum property, the Hermann-Grima House, has been undergoing a major upgrade with the installation of a minimally invasive, state-of-the-art HVAC system that will provide comfort to visitors while protecting antique furnishings and artwork and ensuring the period rooms reflect a mid-19th-century aesthetic. An update on this project will be presented by the lead contractors of Cypress Building Conservation. Through completion in December 2016, tours of the Hermann-Grima House include a behind-the-scenes look at the ongoing renovations.

Air conditioning profoundly changed daily routines and population growth in the South, emptying breezy front porches of evening conversation, increasing productivity in formerly stifling offices and factories, and serving as the key element in a building boom across the Sun Belt that would have been unimaginable without artificial cooling.

Ms. Porterfield serves as Senior Architectural Historian with Hicks & Company Environmental Consultants in Austin, Texas. She received a Master’s Degree in Historic Preservation from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has 11 years of professional experience in architectural history, historic preservation, and cultural resource management.

Previously, Ms. Porterfield served as architectural historian for the City of San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation for six-and-a-half years. Outside of Texas she was an architectural historian for the Public Archaeology Laboratory, Inc. in Pawtucket, Rhode Island; and an architectural historian for Moreland Altobelli Associates, Inc. in Georgia.

 

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