Matthew B. Gilmore
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.
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.