By Bryce VanStavern
White House Specialist
On a recent morning, the weather app on my phone told me it was 35 degrees outside and my car was frosty. Not unusual for March in Virginia, where it’s 80 degrees one day and 30 the next on a regular basis. (The joke this year goes, “I said, ‘You can’t go through all four seasons in a week,’ and Virginia said, ‘Watch this.’”)
If you are a longtime Richmond resident as I am, you know it’s not going to last. Soon it will be June and 80-, 90- and 100-degree days will arrive. You might ask, how would that heat be handled in the White House of the Confederacy during the war? It is a good question and the answer lies in three structural features of the house.
I frequently tell visitors the summer climate in Eastern Virginia can be almost tropical, stiflingly hot and humid. Though there was no air conditioning as we know it, the owners of the house invested in the next best things at the time: very tall ceilings, big doors and big windows.
The tall ceilings are evident in this photo from a recent tour.
First, the ceilings. Fourteen and a half feet on the first floor and twelve and a half feet on the second. Those high ceilings work to keep air flowing and warmer air up high, away from occupants.
Next are the large, triple sash windows. The windows on the first floor along the south and east sides of the house can be opened to create very tall openings that go from the floor to just below the ceiling. In fact, these windows can be used as exits from the house on days they are opened. More importantly they are large, open spaces that allow air to flow through the house.
Double doors in the entrance hall.
Lastly are the very large doors. On the first floor are double doors that open wide and are perfectly matched to the grandeur of this floor. On the second floor, the doors are not double doors; they are large, very wide doors that certainly aid in keeping breezes blowing through the house during the summer.
Mosquito netting was placed over beds and some pieces of furniture, to protect their occupants from the bugs that were also blowing through the house under those circumstances.
When all these features are combined, they work to keep air flowing through the house, with warmer air flowing up and away from those in the house. While the house could still be stiflingly hot during the summers, this bit of engineering at least kept air moving in the structure.
Today the White House of the Confederacy has a modern HVAC system that keeps the artifacts safe and our visitors comfortable. But in the early 19th century when the house was built, it was ingenious and imaginative architecture that was responsible for keeping the summer heat at bay.