It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity: Ninety years of manufactured weather in Washington
Published: September 1st, 2017
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By Matthew B. Gilmore*
August 1, 2017 marked the 91st anniversary of the introduction of air conditioning to Washington, DC — which had debuted at Loew’s Palace Theater, 1306 F Street, NW. Advertising touted an indoor temperature 20 degrees cooler than that on the sidewalk outside, a very attractive proposition when Washington’s summer temperatures spiked well into the 90s. The system launched on that day lacked the sophistication of modern air conditioning but it was a great advance on previous cooling systems.
Discussions of air conditioning and its merits frequently overlook that air conditioning functions not merely to cool air but refresh (re-circulate) it, dehumidify it, and clean it. The buildup of CO2 in crowded places is flushed away. Allergens such as pollen can be filtered out — a blessing to those many Washingtonians with seasonal allergies. The air conditioning we have today combines two different environmental control traditions of ventilation for congregate spaces and refrigeration — cooling of spaces for preservation, storage, and manufacture.
A charming term of art of the day for air conditioning was “manufactured weather.” Manufacturing the weather for Washington was a long-time concern, as Washington was a southern town with an average high temperature in July of over 80 degrees. Peter Charles L’Enfant’s plan set Washington City across the Tiber Creek, imagining it as suitable for transportation when transformed into a canal. The canal was developed, as Washington City Canal which emptied into the Potomac just west of the Washington Monument.
Development of the city around the canal and upstream of the creek which fed it reduced its volume and slowed its flow as it ran westward crossing the flat terrain from 2nd Street, NW to the Potomac. The lack of water volume, the flat terrain, refuse dumping, and the tidal return of the Potomac led to the development of what came to be called the Potomac flats, where the swiftly flowing Potomac dropped its sediment load at the juncture with the Tiber/canal.
The resulting tidal flats were a health hazard for adjacent parts of Washington’s west end, including the Naval Observatory, and particularly the White House. Presidents routinely retreated northward to the Soldiers’ Home or other high grounds to escape summer heat and miasmatic vapors, smells, and mosquitoes.
Hot weather, humidity, and mosquitoes could be deadly in Washington. The most famous White House victim of Washington’s unbearably hot and humid summers was President James A. Garfield. Having been shot at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station at 6th and B Streets NW (in the roadbed of what is now Constitution Avenue near the site of the National Gallery of Art), the unhealthy and stifling air that permeated the White House hastened his demise.
His physicians inexplicably kept the President in the White House for months as his condition declined. A former general and senator and robustly healthy, he wasted away under the perplexed malpractice of his doctors. Several different attempts were made to cool the President’s sickroom. The first, involving sheets, salt water, and ice, while cooling, were doubtless unbearably damp and clammy. Navy engineers were brought in and devised several systems to reduce the temperature, taking it down to 72 degrees.
Even reducing the temperature could not help the President, who was finally taken to New Jersey to die in September. The monument to the unlucky Garfield (the third to a president after (Washington and Lincoln in Washington) was completed in 1887 and stands in a traffic circle west of the Capitol at First Street, SW. Unbeknownst to the Naval engineers, as recounted in the July 27, 1950 edition of the Washington Daily News, Alexandria brewer Robert Portner had patented (#229750) a device to cool and dehumidify air the previous July — one of those curiosities of history. Portner’s beer was cooled but the President was not saved.
The urgency of trying to alleviate the suffering of one important man is just one strand in the history of air conditioning in Washington. Years earlier there were attempts to refresh and ventilate important Washington DC spaces, especially the Capitol chambers of the House and Senate. In 1867 former Maine Congressman and inventor Daniel E. Somes proposed a system “. . . for ventilating, cooling, and heating the Capitol, and for purifying and moistening the air.” He was headed in the right direction by technologically using air forced over chilled pipes to cool and dehumidifying it. S.H. Woodbridge made a similar suggestion in 1895. The ventilation of the Capitol was notoriously bad but it would be 60 years before the Capitol would get its cooling system.
Modern air conditioning technology was invented (or at least popularized if you take Portner into account) by Willis Carrier in 1902. Carrier’s initial invention, an advance in existing air quality control, allowed dehumidification and control of moisture. Willis H. Carrier worked for the Buffalo Forge Company and the invention was not for human comfort but for better manufacturing conditions for lithography. Washington then was a sleepy Southern town. It would be years before air conditioning would reach outside industrial applications to the realm of popular comfort.
In August of 1926, Loew’s Palace Theatre at 1306 F Street, NW, in the heart of Washington’s shopping district, proudly announced its new, unique cooling system. (Note that part of the site is being again redeveloped as One Freedom Plaza.) The temperature inside the theater would be 20 degrees cooler than temperatures on the sidewalk outside. When those temperatures hit the mid-90s, inside would be blessed relief. The draftiness of previous cooling systems was abolished, and humidity reduced to comfortable levels.
In its August 1, 1926 edition, the Washington Post reported that “Palace patrons today will in no wise be sensible of any movement of the air yet without their knowledge; this new system will be silently and completely changing all interior atmosphere once every two minutes and 30 times every hour.” Additionally, as the Post stated, “Temperature, however, is not the only element that will be brought under automatic control by the new system, for it is capable also, whenever needed, of reducing the humidity at any point that comfort requires.”
A week later, on August 8th, Post followed up with a story headlined, “Patrons of Palace Cool,” reporting that in that first week air conditioning temperatures had peaked in the low 90s but inside the theater the air was a comfortable 72 degrees.
Added publicity for the attractive temperature in the theater was provided by the installation of a public thermometer. Another small note in the paper of the day indicated some of the theater musicians needed sweaters because the theater was too cold.
The Palace’s reign as the only air conditioned theater was short-lived, the following year the Earle Theater installed its own state-of-the-art cooling system, described in painstaking detail in the Washington Post on June 19, 1927 and on July 7th it was advertised as “bracing as a spring breeze and as invigorating as a trip to the seashore.”
Loew’s Palace had opened in November 4, 1918 — the first day theaters could re-open following the influenza epidemic. It was the largest theater in Washington at the time with a capacity of 2,423. Marcus Loew, his wife, and his son Arthur attended the November dedication of the Palace. Its opening was followed quickly by Harry Crandall’s Metropolitan Theater on F Street between 9th and 10th Streets, NW and Tom Moore’s Rialto Theater at 9th and G Streets, NW.
Modern theater air conditioning had started in Los Angeles in 1922 at Grauman’s Metropolitan Theater, devised by Leo Logan Lewis of the Carrier Corporation. The innovation spread as theaters in Texas, Chicago, and New York City installed systems at an increasing pace. Washington’s 1926 installation at Loew’s had the advantage of the experience of these others.
Competitor Fox Theater was built in 1927 inside the National Press Building. In June of 1928 installation of the new cooling system for the Rialto reportedly neared completion. In 1929 the Fox was advertising its own cooling system — “manufactured weather.” Fox joined the Loew’s chain and became the Loew’s Capitol in 1936. The new Earle Theater promoted itself as “Cooled by refrigeration: ‘Cool but not cold’.” Warner Brothers took over the Stanley-Crandall theater group in 1928. Story is that Harry Warner visited Washington, asked who Earle was, and decided to rename it after himself.  The Earle still stands as the Warner Theater.
The exciting potential of air conditioning was the subject of an August 3, 1929 article in the Washington Post, headlined “Skyscrapers Seen Without Windows” which predicted 100-story buildings with rooftop landing fields for airplanes and dirigibles.
Air Conditioning Proliferates
By 1930 the quick spread of “manufactured weather” in Washington was noted in the Post. Theaters and hospitals, factories, and office buildings all now were air-conditioned.
In 1930 air conditioning was installed in the White House West Wing, following the Christmas Eve 1929 fire (piecemeal work had been planned earlier but renovations required after the fire offered the opportunity to do a complete job). The Capitol and White House had air conditioning, and the reporter of a July 18, 1930 story in the Post looked to a future where “it is quite possible that cooling plants in homes will be almost as common as furnaces.”
At the new Department of Commerce building in 1931, as reported by the Post on December 31st, engineers took advantage of the adjacent Tiber Creek and incorporated it into a Carrier air conditioning system for executive offices — a system similar to those in the Capitol and White House. Agriculture and Internal Revenue Service buildings built at the same time did not get air conditioning. Plans for the National Archives, developed in 1930, required air conditioning for preservation of materials but had concerns relating to the effect it would have on employees.
The intricacies of running the air conditioning system through the masonry of the Capitol was described by the Post in an August 18, 1935 story headlined “Capitol Hill Keeps Cool While Debating the Great National Issues.” A side note was the problem of jellyfish clogging a Carrier air conditioning system in a federal building (jellyfish had snuck in from the Potomac past a broken water filter).
But air conditioning proliferated. In 1935 funds were appropriated by Congress for air conditioning for the old and new House Office Buildings and the Senate Office Building; also, the new Department of Interior Building got central air conditioning — the first installed in any federal building, at the insistence of Secretary Harold Ickes.
In 1937 President Roosevelt presided over the groundbreaking for the new Federal Triangle’s final building at the 7th Street end of the complex, dubbed the Apex Building, to house the Federal Trade Commission which is headquartered there to this day. The building was one of the first federal buildings in Washington to be built with an integral air-conditioning system and a basement parking garage.
Clearing the Air at the Capitol
Acquiring air conditioning for the Capitol presented those recurrent Congressional issues of (misplaced) thrift versus progress. Robert Friedman, writing in the August/September 1985 issue of American Heritage magazine, related a snippet of the struggles to air-condition the United States Capitol:
“Then, early in 1928, a panel of experts that included members of the Public Health Service issued a report recommending that Carrier air-condition the Capitol. Dr. Leonard Greenburg, a member of the panel, testified before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, saying that the quality of the air in summer months was impairing the health and mental faculties of the nation’s legislators. This touched off a vigorous debate between William Holaday, a congressman from Illinois, and Frank Murphy of Ohio.
“MR. HOLADAY: ‘I would like to have some information as to whether or not there is any real need for this change. Personally, I have not noticed anything wrong with the air in the Hall of the House. . . .’
“MR. MURPHY: ‘There have for several years been some complaints about the condition of the air in the Chamber. Many of our Members have died recently.’
“MR. HOLADAY: ‘Maybe their deaths were caused by hard work rather than by the air in the Chamber.’
“The matter remained unsettled until John Sandlin, a Louisiana Democrat, had the last word. ‘I think most of the Members,’ he said, ‘heretofore have had the feeling and the belief that there was a lot of foul air in the Hall.’” 
Joking aside, the Architect of the Capitol in his 1928 report stated reasons for spending funds to air condition the House and Senate chambers:
“It should be remembered that these two Legislative Halls of the Capitol are different from the ordinary public halls where large numbers of people congregate; in this respect the usual audience chamber is only occupied for a short period of time and not for several hours as in the case of the legislative chambers of the Capitol. For this reason the air should be conditioned so that the temperature would be neither too warm nor too cold and that the humidity should not be too great or too little. . . .”
In his report for the year ending June 30, 1929 Architect of the Capitol David Lynn included a very extensive description of the air conditioning systems installed in the Capitol.
Residential Air Conditioning Arrives
Residential air conditioning was featured at the Chicago 1933-‘34 “A Century of Progress” World’s Fair. Large commercial establishments increasingly took to manufacturing their weather; newspaper display advertising listed establishments using Carrier systems. Residential air conditioning began to gather steam in the 1930s as well.
By November of 1935 the Post was reporting “Conditioning of Air Now Is No Luxury: Cost of Small System Fits Average Budget; Health Factor” and “Air conditioning has been proved to be vastly important in reducing colds and other respiratory disorders” and the use of air conditioning (and heating) systems to maintain a stable temperature and humidity to preserve homes and furnishings.
A similar report ran a year later (July 12, 1936) touting the humidification, filtration, and temperature control afforded by air conditioning. Waycroft, Virginia was the site of E.V. Pugh’s first completely air-conditioned house for under $6,000. “Air-Controlled Home Receives Wide Approval: Many Persons View First House to Present Complete” (Post, May 26, 1935). Waverly Taylor’s “Jane Brown” model home at 7010 Rolling Road Bethesda in 1936 featured General Electric air conditioning. Smaller retail establishments scurried to adopt also. On July 16, 1937 the Post ran a story headlined “D.C. Night Spots Feature Relief From Summer: Diners and Dancers Kept Cool by Up-to-Date Air-Conditioners.”
In 1938, a heat wave prompted traditional federal employee dismissals from unconditioned buildings. The Post’s August 16th headline read “Heat Tops D.C. Record; 3 Collapse: Mercury at 96.4 Degrees”; similar heat waves struck Washington in 1939, and the Post’s August 18th headline exclaimed, “10,000 U.S. Workers Sent Home On 11th Day of Above-90 Heat”; and again in 1940, on July 27th, “Heat to Abate; One Dead and 24 Overcome in D.C.”
The March 21, 1953 edition of the Washington Daily News featured a story that air conditioning was predicted to influence the future design of government buildings. But air conditioning was not added to existing government buildings with any rapidity. Employees in existing buildings took matters into their own hands. On May 15, 1956 the Evening Star reported federal employees purchasing individual and installing in their office windows air conditioning units, taking advantage of a new General Services Administration directive allowing it.
By May 12, 1957 Paul Herron in the Post was touting the benefits of residential central air conditioning, “simply as something that would “pay for itself.” Federal progress in air conditioning continued as record-breaking compressors almost three times the size of those at the Pentagon were, reported the Post on April 15, 1960, installed that year for the Agriculture Department.
On June 28, 1962 the Washington Daily News headlined a story as “We’re the most air-conditioned city in the whole world”; three years later, in 1965, the Post reiterated that news; the high proportion Washingtonians living in air-conditioned apartments largely accounted for this. At the same time the General Services Administration was pushing for more air-conditioning in federal offices as a measure to boost efficiency and productivity.
A little more than a month later the District’s Engineer Commissioner John Duncan struggled to convince his colleagues to invest in air conditioning public buildings. As the Post reported on August 15th, he stated, “Air conditioning in the summer is as important as heating in the winter.” By 1963 the District government had an air conditioning policy setting priorities for types of facilities to be funded for air conditioning.
Washington’s rapid and pervasive adoption of air conditioning makes the thought of life in areas without it nearly unthinkable (at least in allergy seasons and the heat of summer). Most recently, in 1999, the National Building Museum hosted the extremely popular award-winning exhibit billed as “Stay Cool! Air Conditioning America.”
As summarized in its publicity promoting the show, “Stay Cool! will be the first major exhibition to explore the transformative power of air conditioning. A defining technology of the twentieth century, air conditioning spurred the invention of totally new forms of architecture and interior design, altering the way Americans live, work, and play. From glass skyscrapers, enclosed shopping malls, and tract homes to Disneyland’s themed indoor rides, high-tech manufacturing clean rooms, and pressurized modules for space exploration, many of the nation’s modern structures would not exist without the invention of “man-made weather.”
The technology of “engineered air” has changed our relationship with nature itself by creating indoor artificial climates, shifting seasonal patterns of work and play, and making America’s geographic differences environmentally insignificant.
Washington’s experience with air conditioning has been a positive one. Clean, cool, fresh, dehumidified air has contributed mightily to the health, well-being, and productivity of its workers and residents. Sand’s been blown (metaphorically) from the eyes of the “sleepy Southern town” which now is a 12-month city.
 Robert K. Headley, Motion picture exhibition in Washington, D.C.: an illustrated history of parlors, palaces, and multiplexes in the metropolitan area, 1894-1977. p. 257.
 Robert Friedman, “The Air-conditioned Century.” American Heritage, vol. 35, no. 5 (Aug./Sep. 1984).
References & Resources
Marsha E. Ackermann, Cool Comfort: America’s Romance with Air Conditioning. Smithsonian Institution Press (2002).
Oscar Edward Anderson, Refrigeration in America: a history of a new technology and its impact. Princeton University Press (1953).
Architect of the Capitol, Annual report for the fiscal year ended June 30, 1928.
Architect of the Capitol, Annual report for the fiscal year ended June 30, 1929.
Jeff E. Biddle, “Making Consumers Comfortable: The Early Decades of Air Conditioning in the United States.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 71, no. 4 (Dec. 2011).
Gail Cooper, Air Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900-1960. Johns Hopkins Univ. Press (1998).
U.S. Department of Energy, “History of Air Conditioning.” <Energy.gov, July 20, 2015.) https://energy.gov/articles/history-air-conditioning#.WRzV2-Kw0A0.email>
Barry Donaldson & Bernard Nagengast, Heat & cold: mastering the great indoors: a selective history of heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and refrigeration from the ancients to the 1930s. American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (1994).
Robert Friedman, “The Air-conditioned Century.” American Heritage, vol. 35, no. 5 (Aug./Sep. 1984).
Felix Gillette, “Sleepy Hollow: Tales of the District’s drowsiness are getting tired.” Washington City Paper (July 18, 2003).
Evelyn Peyton Gordon, “More on air conditioning: Robert Portner of Washington and Alexandria, Invented it in 1878.” Washington Daily News (Jul. 27, 1950).
John Steele Gordon, “Air Conditioning, Blessed Invention: Willis Carrier changed the world for the better — though making Washington, D.C. livable in summer doesn’t help the cause of limited government.” Wall Street Journal (Jul. 10, 2012).
Martha Hamilton, “D.C. Without A.C.? Life Here Would Be Positively B.C.” Washington Post Jun. 16, 1994).
Robert K. Headley, Motion picture exhibition in Washington, D.C.: an illustrated history of parlors, palaces, and multiplexes in the metropolitan area, 1894-1977. McFarland ompany 1999.
The Occasional CEO (blog), “Modern Air Conditioning 113 Years Later: It Smells Like a Spring Day.” (Jul. 17, 2015).
Susanna Robbins, “Keeping Things Cool: Air-Conditioning in the Modern World.” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 42-46 (Oct., 2003).
Feather Foster Schwartz, “The Three Major Inventions of Garfield’s Assassination.” Presidential History Blog (Sep. 16, 2014).
Daniel E. Somes, Mr. D.E. Somes’ Plan for Ventilating, Cooling, and Heating the Capitol, and for Purifying and Moistening the Air. (Washington, DC, 1867). [Out of print] < https://www.worldcat.org/title/mr-de-somes-plan-for-ventilating-cooling-and-heating-the-capitol-and-for-purifying-and-moistening-the-air/oclc/497920324>
*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com. Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.
© 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.
Reprinted with permission. © 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gillmore. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §107 (“fair use”).