USA Today (8.12.91)

Conditioned to avoid air conditioning

Craig Wilson

Travis Whitfield is a lonely man this time of year.

''Nobody wants to come see me in the dead of summer,'' admits the Keatchie, La., artist. ''I have all my visitors in the spring and fall.''

Not that Whitfield isn't a sociable sort in the summer. He is. He'll give you a cool drink and chat you up for hours on his back porch, sheltered by an ancient pecan tree.

It's just that Whitfield doesn't have air conditioning.

Never has. Never will.

Whitfield calls himself ''just a stubborn stronghold.''

Some would call him crazy.

But he's not alone in his eccentricity. Lurking behind more screen doors than you might think is a breed of people who would rather pass the summer sitting quietly in the heat than give in to the artificial world of air conditioning.

Whitfield, for instance, happily puts his high-ceilinged Victorian home through its summertime paces, just as pre-air-conditioning Southerners did for generations. He opens the windows and shutters at night to let the cool air in; closes them in the morning to trap it.

''I like to feel the morning, to feel the day,'' says Whitfield, 46, who has happy memories of growing up under a hot tin roof, often falling asleep with a paper funeral-parlor fan in his hand. ''With air conditioning, you can't feel the morning or noon or night. You can't tell what's happening outside. I love to get up and know what the day is.''

So Whitfield awakes to the chirping of birds, and slowly slips into the rhythm of the day, which includes painting in his studio next door. Yes, un- air-conditioned.

Granted, the Travis Whitfields of the world are a small minority. More than 75% of new one-family homes in the U.S. have central air conditioning, according to the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute in Arlington, Va. Even in the cooler Northeast, 52% of the new homes are air conditioned, and the number is growing every year.

The anti-AC contingent, of course, thinks this is sad news indeed.

To them, air conditioning has ruined the rhythm of the seasons. What's the point of summer, they ask, if you can't slow down?

They wonder about a lot of things.

Like ... air conditioning is credited with the population boom and economic growth from Arizona to Atlanta, but what's the point of moving there if you're going to spend all your time inside?

And why go down to the sea again if you're in a hermetically sealed condo and can't hear the pounding of the waves?

But perhaps most puzzling of all: If air conditioning is such a creature comfort, why does it separate creatures?

People used to sit on their front porches and talk. Today, they're inside, away from their neighbors. Summer stoop sitting has become a lost art.

Frank Trippet, an essayist for Time, summed it up best when he wrote that air conditioning has ''seduced families into retreating into houses with closed doors and shut windows, reducing the commonality of neighborhood life and all but making obsolete the society whose open, casual folkways were an appealing hallmark of a sweatier America.''

Indeed. Would Gone With the Wind have had the same sex appeal if Scarlett were sitting inside next to a humming air conditioner rather than flirting and fanning herself out on the veranda?

We think not.

''My mother couldn't abide it at all,'' says Civil War historian Shelby Foote, who grew up in un-air-conditioned Greenville, Miss. ''She felt it was taking her out of touch with the world, which in a sense it was.''

This, however, didn't stop the family from forcing an air conditioner upon her.

''A cousin of mine thought he was doing a nice favor for her and put a window unit in her bedroom,'' Foote says. ''Not only wouldn't she use it, she had it removed.''

Whitfield understands the late Mrs. Foote perfectly.

He recalls many a fitful night away from home, held hostage to the chill of a hotel's air conditioning.

''I can't sleep worth a hoot,'' he says. ''I feel penned in. I almost have nightmares from the claustrophobia.''

Foreigners are particularly confused by our obsession with refrigerated air.

Siouxsie Sioux, singer for the British alternative rock band Siouxsie and the Banshees, is but one.

''One of the worst aspects of touring in America is the air conditioning,'' says Sioux, whose band is currently touring here with the Lollapalooza Festival. ''It drives me crazy. You go from the hot weather into a freezing cold room 20 times a day, back and forth. I hate it!''

Sioux should go work with Emily James, who portrays a kitchen slave at the Benjamin Powell house, an 18th-century residence on the grounds of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.

The house is not air conditioned, a fact that often stuns tourists.

But not James.

''If the tour is in the kitchen and it gets too hot, all we have to do is go outside and stand under the shade tree in the garden,'' she says matter-of- factly.

But James is best known among her colleagues for her refusal to escape to the air-conditioned employee lounge during her breaks.

''Often times when I'm in the air conditioning, when I go back outside I get extra hot,'' she says. ''So it's easier to stay out of there altogether.''

A woman after Travis Whitfield's heart.

While older buildings were often designed for good ventilation, today's buildings are not. Gone are the gracious high-ceilinged, cross-ventilated homes, replaced by low-slung boxes that demand air conditioning.

''It's like closing out nature,'' sighs Barbara Saile of Cape Canaveral, Fla., who does what she can to countermand the dictates of today's architecture. ''Even at work they laugh at me. If I'm alone there, I open up the doors and windows and turn off the air.''

She's one of the lucky ones. In many of today's office buildings, the windows don't even open. Yes. Because of air conditioning.

When was the last time you saw a lace curtain blowing in the summer breeze?

Well, maybe at Seaside, Fla., where the highly acclaimed planned resort community has taken many cues from the past. High ceilings with fans, porches, deep roof overhangs, and windows that actually open (how revolutionary!) give breezes off the gulf the run of the house. The homes there are also built off the ground, like Whitfield's, so breezes flow under as well as through.

New York architect Walter Chatham has built a couple of homes at Seaside and really didn't want to put air conditioning in, but he gave in for the most practical of reasons. Potential AC-demanding renters.

So goes the sultry South.

Raymond Arsenault mused about air conditioning's attack against our culture a few years ago in the Chicago Tribune. Especially Southern culture. He thought the South, with its special regional traditions, might survive.

''But it won't be easy,'' he wrote. ''General Electric has proved a more devastating invader than General Sherman.''

Contributed by Jerry Burch.

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