A pocket thermometer from James Madison's Montpelier.

photo by: The Montpelier Foundation

August 23, 2023

Time-Tested Tactics: 7 Historic Ways to Beat the Heat

With July 2023 going down in the record books as one of the hottest months in Earth’s history, those of us who enjoy amenities such as air conditioning might be prompted to ask: How did people stay cool in the past, and what architectural features helped manage temperature where they lived?

To find out the answer to those questions, we asked our National Trust Historic Sites about what they used to do to mitigate the heat. It's a return to the days of ingenuity, with resourcefulness and innovation key to minimizing the sweltering atmosphere. A time when open windows invite gentle breezes to caress our skin, when shades and drapes provide a symphony of comfort, and when the allure of a perfectly crafted ice-cold beverage entices us with its promise of sweet relief.

Here are a few ways to experience the art of staying cool without modern conveniences.

Open Those Windows to Get Cross Breezes Flowing

In the late 1700s, President James Madison and his family kept cool in the humid Virginia summers by opening several windows at Montpelier. The windows on the sides of the front door, called sidelights, were lowered into slots in the wall, allowing air to enter the house.

The front doors of Montpelier.

Here, you can see the sidelights of the front door at Montpelier.

The sidelights of the Drawing Room entryway were also used, letting the air flow into the large room and these, coupled with the floor-to-ceiling windows within the same space, provided a cooling cross breeze.

Built by Waddy Butler Wood in 1915, the President Woodrow Wilson House incorporated various architectural features to facilitate air circulation, such as the presence of numerous large windows throughout the building, to combat the muggy Washington, D.C. summers. These windows, placed across from each other, were strategically positioned to take advantage of cross-ventilation. This natural ventilation system helped maintain a comfortable indoor environment without the need for mechanical assistance.

The solarium on the second floor of the Wilson House

photo by: Scott Suchman

Note the window in the solarium, which opens onto a staircase. It is opposite the large windows to the front of the house. By opening windows on opposite sides of a room, a refreshing breeze could flow through, carrying away stagnant hot air and replacing it with cooler air from the outdoors.

Get Hot Air Out of the House

Located in sweltering Washington, DC, President Lincoln’s Cottage relied on a primitive cooling system in the attic where wooden ducts facilitated warm air traveling up and out through a skylight. The Cottage also kept top windows open in the hottest months for natural ventilation.

Built in 1894, the Bowling Alley at Lyndhurst’s ceiling vents allowed hot air to escape upwards while fresh, cooler air flowed into the rooms through, once again, open windows. This Tarrytown, New York estate was built to take advantage of the proximity to the river as cooler breezes came off the water and, when paired with the large, covered veranda, offered a shaded, sheltered space in the hotter months of the year.

A view of the interior of the bowling alley at Lyndhurst

photo by: Clifford Pickett

Several windows on the Bowling Alley at Lyndhurst take advantage of the cooler breezes from the Hudson River.

Innovative architectural elements at Wilson House, such as high ceilings and a storage room that vents to the roof, helped to move hot air away from the interior of the house. High ceilings created a sense of spaciousness, but also served a functional purpose in hot climates. As heat rose, the increased vertical space allowed hot air to accumulate near the ceiling, keeping the lower levels of the room relatively cooler.

Bring Chilly Air Up from Underground

Built as a summer house in 1838, Lyndhurst was outfitted with large windows on the first floor that can be opened to allow river breezes to move air through the house. They relied on open windows and shutters to keep the house cool in the summer months.

However, Lyndhurst boasted another innovative feature to lower temperatures within the house. Cooling tubes were a pre-modern air conditioning invention. In the 1860s, they were added to the walls in Lyndhurst and cycled cool air naturally from the basement levels to the second-floor bedrooms. The vents seen throughout the second floor are a part of this system.

A view of a decorative cooling vent in one of the bedrooms at Lyndhurst.

photo by: Gina LeVay

View of the decorative cooling vent in Anna Gould's bedroom at Lyndhurst.

A view of the attic's air vents

photo by: President Lincoln's Cottage

A view of the skylight in the attic of President Lincoln's Cottage.

Find Reinvigorating Breezes by Escaping Outdoors

Lyndhurst had shaded resting areas in the landscape that were akin to outdoor parlor rooms with grand views of the Hudson River. The rockery viewing areas were constructed to not only provide places to sit and enjoy the river views, but to also keep people cool by capitalizing on the shade as well as refreshing zephyrs from the river.

In 1925, at Brucemore, Irene Douglas, a patron of local artists, commissioned Cedar Rapids artist Grant Wood to design and install a sleeping porch for her daughter. Sleeping porches were considered a healthy way to connect with the outdoors and seek relief from sweltering summer nights.

Grant Wood went on to achieve international acclaim; today, he is best known for his American Gothic painting. The Grant Wood Sleeping Porch at Brucemore is decorated with plaster relief depicting curving vines, flowers, birds, and animals. Today, it’s a unique opportunity to see the artist’s versatility and skill.

viewing deck

photo by: Brucemore

A view of the Grant Wood Porch platform viewing deck at Brucemore in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Chill Out with Frosty Delights

The Wilsons owned a state-of-the-art ice chest that employed a huge block of ice used to keep food items cold after delivery. The servants used a huge pair of tongs to quickly get the ice in the chest in the sweltering D.C. summers.

An icy treat always provides relief on the hottest days of summer. Dolley Madison is often credited as being the first to popularize ice cream at White House parties; however, she wasn’t the first to serve ice cream there.To get the real scoop on Dolley Madison (and if she ever savored the enigmatic oyster ice cream), delve into the annals of history with the historians at Montpelier.

Take a Dip

Under the heat of the California sun, the Roth family sought to escape the heat by adding a swimming pool to their estate, Filoli, beautifully situated against the Santa Cruz mountains.  In 1946, the pool was added for Bill Roth’s exercise, but quickly became a favorite family summer gathering spot. The swimming pool is situated between several arrays of high hedges, with a view of the Clock Tower. The Roths’ teenage daughters and friends were known to lay by the pool and cool off during California summers.

A group of people gathered on a lawn under white umbrellas with a pool in the foreground.

photo by: Liberté Reilly/Filoli

A view of the pool at Filoli.

Escape the City Altogether

Finally, one of the simplest ways to stay cool during the summer was to escape the intolerable city heat and head to cooler climes.

Lyndhurst was built as a country summer home for New York City mayor (in the 1820s) William Paulding Jr. The thick masonry of the mansion insulated the house and kept its interior temperatures cooler for longer during the hot days of the summer. It was eventually sold to railroad magnate Jay Gould in 1880, who used it as a family summer home to escape the heat and pressure of business life in the city.

In the early 20th century, President Woodrow Wilson and his family would go to the New Jersey shore to stay in their summer home, the “Shadow Lawn Estate.”

So, in the spirit of these time-honored tactics, If the weather is hot and sticky where you’re living, we welcome you to visit the National Trust’s diverse collection of historic sites to get a respite from the sweltering conditions and see these architectural innovations in person.

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Haley Somolinos is the manager of email marketing at the National Trust. She has a passion for places and the stories that they hold.

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