- Historic Sites
The Air-conditioned Century
The story of how a blast of cool, dry air changed America
August/september 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 5
Soon other branches of government grew envious. During the winter of 1929, after a Christmas Eve fire destroyed the old office wing of the White House, and at the outset of America s darkest depression, Herbert Hoover approved the installation of a $30,000 air-conditioning and heating unit in the renovated West Wing. Hoover, who went so far as to build a retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains to escape what he once referred to as “Washingtons exhausting summer heat,” was delighted with the results. Not to be outdone, the Supreme Court followed suit in 1931, air-conditioning most of its building, even though the Court was not in session during the summer months.
Gradually the idea of c(X)ling off the workplace took hold, although the growth of the air-conditioning industry, the number of installations, and the development of the necessary technology were set back by a decade of economic stagnation.
The first multistory office building to be fully air-conditioned, in 1926, was a small, eight-story structure in Fresno, California; the first large air-conditioned office tower was the twenty-one-story Milam Building in San Antonio, Texas, which opened two years later. The Milam Building, the tallest concrete-framed structure in the world at the time, had a central refrigerating source in the basement and a series of smaller plants on every other Boor. Cool air was distributed to each office through metal ducts, and warm air returned via the hallways. The problem with this system, a problem that made air conditioning an unattractive proposition to most builders until the late 1930s, was that the ductwork took up a considerable amount of space: the comforts of air conditioning simply could not offset the loss of valuable square footage. Thus, the Empire State Building, which opened in 1931, and most other large office buildings constructed during those years were not air-conditioned, even though the technology was available.
Those buildings that were air-conditioned provided a continuing source of wonderment as well as comfort. Secretaries no longer had to worry about soot coming through the windows. Bosses took to wearing sweaters in the middle of summer. And a study of Detroit Edison workers done in 1938 showed an astounding 51 percent increase in productivity.
WHEN THE BUILDING that housed the Gazette in Emporia, Kansas, was air-conditioned in 1935, the business manager, William L. White, the son of the paper s famous editor, William Alien White, marveled at the cooling coils that looked like “large-sized copper macaroni” and the condenser that reminded him of the “motor of a 1910 Packard sedan with a fresh coat of paint.” According to White, “the greatest wonder of these wonders to our mind is this: you can put your hand for an instant on that 3-inch pipe, which is almost hot enough to fry an egg, and feel the concentrated, pulsating bodily warmth of nine doctors, two dentists, an osteopath, three professional men, 10 comely office girls and an indeterminate number of assorted patients—all passing through that pipe, throbbing under the fingers of your one hand, in one gesture, in one second. A thrill, gentlemen, that Lincoln, Louis XIV, Nero Ahenobarbus, and Ramses II never could have enjoyed.”
What finally made the air-conditioning of skyscrapers feasible and ultimately made the modern, boxlike office building possible, was another Carrier invention—the Conduit Weathermaster System—introduced in 1937. Carrier’s solution was to distribute moisture-controlled air through narrow ducts at high velocity, thus allowing smaller pipes. The air was then further cooled or heated at the point of delivery by individually controlled units placed under the window of each office. These units, which had chilled or warmed water circulating in coils, depending on the season, controlled not only the temperature of the air but also noise and drafts. Among the first buildings to make use of the system were the Bankers Life Building in Macon, Georgia, the Durham Life Building in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the Statler Hotel in Washington, D.C.
IT WAS NOT until after the war, however, that this new technology had its greatest impact. Along with the development of the fluorescent light tube in the late 1930s, which made it possible to illuminate windowless areas without generating an excessive amount of heat, the Conduit Weathermaster freed architects from environmental constraints on design: windows could be sealed (or eliminated altogether); airshafts were no longer necessary for lighting or ventilation; and interior areas could now be turned into usable space.
The first signs of this architectural liberation could be seen in Howe and Lescaze’s 1931 Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building, the second fully air-conditioned office tower in the country and the first to make use of an International style design; its apotheosis was reached with the forty-story United Nations Secretariat Building, completed in 1951. Not only was this one of the first glass office towers, but it also provided an example of how the service floors that housed the air-conditioning plants could be cleverly integrated into the external design of the building. As Reyner Banham, the architectural historian, has noted: “Le Corbusier’s vision of the Cartesian glass prism of the slab skyscraper, and Carrier’s practical technology for solving any environmental problem that offered an honest dollar had met, literally, in the UN building, and the face of the urban world has been altered.”