In 1916 when Captain Ed Roberts, a navigator of the Bay Queen transporting passengers and goods between Mobile and Fairhope, built this house, he wanted all the latest in modern conveniences, including indoor plumbing, a wall telephone in the center hall, and an attic fan to bring in cool breezes all summer long. He had to have the biggest, most efficient fan in all mankind, and he put it right on the landing between the ground floor and the "cockpit," the upper floor of the spacious airplane bungalow he built.
Until I moved in in 2004 the attic fan was the only cooling system for the house. To operate it, I have to open as many windows as possible -- and these sweet old casement windows that surround the house are outfitted with iron handles that hook into holes to prop them open. There is a nice new switch at the base of the fan, which is now encased in a knotty pine cabinet that leads to a hole in the wall of the house. The fan, I am fond of saying (because it's true) is as big as a Volkswagen and probably as powerful.
In May of the year I moved in I had air conditioning installed. This marked the end of an era for the captain's house, and the beginning of keeping windows closed as tightly as possible against heat, cold, and humidity. I still run the fan sometimes, in the spring and in the fall, when it's cool enough outside and a little window breeze is appreciated. It is a noisy old thing. When it runs it sounds as though someone is using a dishwasher in a room somewhere in the house. It is a novelty now, a throwback to the days before we found dry, conditioned and cooled air an absolute necessity. I'm glad it's here, but I fear that it may not be appreciated as long as the house itself.
I often say that no matter how much energy, creativity and money I put into this house, it will be sold eventually as a tear-down. If I sell it before that time, the first thing new owners would probably do is remove the attic fan altogether. But I remember what it stands for and love it for still being able to function.