Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Sarasota...A COOL Place to Live!

My wife Liz and I spend most evenings on our lanai with a cold drink in hand, enjoying the cool Sarasota breeze…and that includes these dog days of summer evenings. The other night we started reminiscing about the summers in Sarasota when we were kids…we did not have air-conditioning then and surprisingly, we don’t remember sweltering or suffering. That’s mostly because of how homes were built back then.

Liz’s family lived in a little cottage on Siesta Key which was built in the early 1950’s. In those days, trees were left on the lots for shade and homes were built a bit up off the ground and had porches and windows all around. This allowed for ventilation from below and a cross-draft through the windows to capture the gulf breeze. The porches shielded the front rooms from sunlight, thus keeping it cooler and allowed windows to remain open, letting air circulate even when it was raining. This is how we Floridians survived before the days of the air-conditioner.

We were accustomed to a “front porch” lifestyle when our families would spend time outside of the house on the front porch where it was cooler. People would socialize while on the porch, and neighbors would often walk by and visit each other while cooling off. I kind of miss that.

When I was a teenager I worked with my dad building spec homes and again, we followed the ‘cross-breeze’ technique in these homes as well as their orientation, even when air-conditioning became more common. The invention of air-conditioning is an often overlooked factor in the shaping of the history of Florida. We are all so dependent on it now we hardly think about it. But ‘way back when’, it wasn’t the norm.
Decades before air conditioning became a must-have item in homes, cars and businesses, Sarasota was referring to itself as "The Air Conditioned City" because we were fanned by gentle gulf and bay breezes that blew  through the community, making the hottest day in August a pleasant experience in comparison to our northern brothers and sisters who were dropping like flies in the heat. A newspaper article proclaimed, “Records prove that while temperatures soar over the Nation, it’s comfortable here.” “Beat the Heat! Stay in Air-Conditioned Sarasota where it’s C-O-O-L!”
Air conditioning didn't become part of the average Florida home until the 1950's with the advent of the window unit, fondly know as the ‘window shaker’. That was followed by central air in the 1960's and the heat pump, which provides warmth and cooling, in the 1970's. Air conditioning marked a major cultural shift for Florida: Over 400,000 southern homes had central air units in 1960; by the mid-1960's more than 40 percent of the homes being built in the region were equipped with ‘central air’. While air conditioning of public buildings in the north began to take root in the late 1920's and 1930's, it was not until post WWII that it became more commonplace in the south. By the 1960's air conditioned hotels and motels had become more common. Motels and restaurants boasted air-conditioned facilities for their visitors. This greatly increased the tourism industry as visitors to Florida could visit in comfort during the summer months. You could say that air conditioning built Florida.

Air conditioning is thought to have played a role in the large population density boom in the South, with the population density doubling from 1930 to 1980. While you could argue that Florida has lost some of its “front porch culture”, there is no doubt that the introduction of air-conditioning has greatly shaped the recent history of Florida. Sarasota was once promoted in song as "the Air-Conditioned City." Now every Florida city is air-conditioned. Less that a hundred years ago, people had to rely mostly on architectural tricks to find relief from the heat. And, in the event that you find yourself with a busted air conditioner in these dog days of summer in Florida?  Open your windows - you might discover a cross-breeze you never knew you had!

Sources and Credits:  The Sarasota Herald Tribune/Jeff LaHurd, The Orlando Sentinel, Sun Sentinel, University of South Florida,