The Old “California Cooler”

  • Bonnie Spindler
  • 02/20/15
As a builder in San Francisco, we have done our share of Victorian remodels over the last 25 years. I have always been impressed with the suitability of the Victorian design to the unique weather characteristics of the Bay Area. Temperate in nature and usually quite rainy, the San Francisco weather can vary drastically from micro-climate to micro-climate, but it does not vary too much through the seasons. Unlike the East Coast or the North West, we do not have extremes in temperature here in San Francisco. We are legendary for our natural air conditioning that kicks in when it’s 110 in the valley.
Early builders here in San Francisco took advantage of the characteristic weather and harnessed the cool air to help keep food fresh. Known as the San Francisco cooler, builders would open a stud bay near the kitchen to the exterior, stopping the sheathing and siding and inserting a framed box that looked like a tall thin window. Instead of glass, however, the builder would insert a series of horizontal louvered panels that would prevent rainwater from entering while allowing air to move freely in the box. Behind the shutter like louvers, the builder would attach screen to keep out the bugs. On the inside of the cooler box, perforated or screened shelves were built-in to hold things like potatoes, onions, fruits, etc. Cabinet doors on the inside finished off this early version of a refrigerator.
Some versions lacked an interior component and would simply act as a ventilator for the pantry as a whole. Cool air would circulate through the louvers and slow the deterioration of food stores.
Many times, we have removed drywall or plaster from other remodels to discover these cooler vents that were abandoned. If you are remodeling your Victorian, look for the telltale, shutter-like structure on the outside of your building, usually located in a light well or breezeway. Re-opening an existing cooler or installing a new one in your pantry is a simple, practical and economical way to take advantage of our unique weather pattern and save energy. Sometimes the old ways are the greenest ways.
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