Beating the Heat in America’s Early Office Buildings, Pt. 2

5 Aug

Part 1 of this series on early air conditioning can be found here.

America’s earliest skyscrapers in Chicago and New York were profitable for their builders but sometimes less than desirable spaces for those working in them.   Though the occupants of early skyscrapers marveled at how these buildings could rise to such  great heights, these same awe-struck workers grumbled through many a hot, stuffy day up in their offices in the sky.

Adler & Sullivan’s 1889 Auditorium Building in Chicago. The Auditorium Theatre was cooled with air fanned over ice. Photo credit Historic American Buildings Survey

Few early office buildings could claim to have integral mechanical ventilation systems because the technology simply did not yet exist to cool buildings on such a large scale.  Chicago’s 1889 Auditorium Building designed by Adler & Sullivan was one notable exception.  Though the office and hotel spaces remained unventilated, the great Auditorium Theatre at the west end of the building was cooled with air circulated over large blocks of ice.

Ice, however, was not the future.  To keep occupancies high and rents competitive, the thousands of warm-bodied office workers tall office buildings housed must somehow be cooled and ventilated in a consistent and efficient manner.  If the large office building was to be a success, a technology-driven way to maintain comfortable temperature and humidity levels indoors must be developed.  And quick, because if such an effective cooling system could be developed, the result would be no less momentous than the invention of the skyscraper’s own structural steel frame.

Willis Carrier in his later years, a proud papa with his first chiller design. Credit Treehugger (

Enter Willis Carrier (1876-1950) from Buffalo, New York.  In 1902, twenty-six year old Carrier was an engineer for the Buffalo Forge Company, a casting operation that also developed heating coils and fans for industrial clients.  That year, the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing Company of Brooklyn, NY, asked the Buffalo Forge Company to solve a puzzling problem going on in their printing rooms:  the humidity of Brooklyn’s hot summers was causing their paper sizes to fluctuate from day to day and from print to print.  To maintain their printing quality (and to stay in business at all), Sackett-Wilhelms needed a way stabilize their paper sheet sizes by working around the temperature and weather conditions outside their printing rooms.  Young Willis Carrier was tapped by company brass to find a solution and the result was a 30-ton “air washer,”  an enormous mechanism that used fans to draw hot, humid air in, high-pressure cold water jets to cool and clean the air, and exit fans to push the fresh air out onto the printing room floor.

The Buffalo Forge Company, Buffalo, NY, in 1908, where Willis Carrier developed his first mechanical cooling system in 1902. Credit Buffalo Architecture and History (

Four years later on January 2, 1906, Carrier received the patent for his “Apparatus for Treating Air,” a more sophisticated incarnation of his air spraying system and a mechanism that eventually developed into the modern air conditioner.  Carrier’s initial “air washers” were crude, but his success as an air-washing expert would eventually drive him to leave Buffalo Forge in 1915 and start his own eponymous mechanical cooling operation.  Carrier’s later inventions elaborated on these earlier patents and won him the unofficial title of “father of modern air conditioning.”

Stuart Cramer (1868-1940), who popularized air conditioning in Southern U.S. cotton mills to keep cotton fibers cool and manageable in the spinning process. Credit Textile History (

Carrier may be known worldwide today, but it was actually textile mill engineer Stuart Cramer (1868-1940) who first coined the term “air-conditioning.”  The cotton mills Cramer developed at the turn-of-the-century in the Southern United States endured even more hellish conditions of heat and humidity. Cramer became an advocate for the mechanical cooling of these mills, though not in fact to make for a more pleasant work environment for those toiling inside of them.  Instead, Cramer was more concerned with the quality of raw cotton fibers which were much more easily spun into yarn when the air around them was kept cool.

Thanks to engineers and inventors like Willis Carrier, the technology now existed to artificially cool the enormous manufacturing halls pumping out American products and prosperity.  The early careers of Willis Carrier and Stuart Cramer showed more focus and more economic promise in the development of cooling mechanisms for America’s industrial spaces and less on keeping actual human workers comfortable.

Twelve year-old Selina Wall, a worker in the Brazos Valley Cotton Mill, West Texas, in 1913. Cotton mill workers like Selina benefited from Stuart Cramer’s efforts to keep cotton mills — and the cotton fibers processed within them — cool. Photo credit Library of Congress.

But what about the pencil-pushers supporting America’s growing corporate powers?  What about the executives and the assistants and the secretaries who greased the wheels of the nation’s commerce?  Sure, they weren’t the actual physical producers of the industrial products Americans were beginning to buy — they weren’t on the production floor dripping in sweat printing lithographs or spinning cotton yarn — but the roles of communication, accounting, and marketing they played were priceless when it came to getting goods to market and keeping American manufacturing afloat.

Couldn’t a value be put on the office worker’s need to keep cool and dry in hot weather?

Frank Lloyd Wright’s headquarters for the Larkin Company, Buffalo, NY c. 1906. Credit Buffalo Rising (

Darwin Martin of the Larkin Company certainly thought so.  In 1906 with the help of his architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Martin would unveil his company’s new Buffalo, NY headquarters, a “Temple to Labor” designed to be as efficient in its use as an office building as in its mechanical air circulation and purification systems.  It was a structure not so very far from the Buffalo Forge Company where Willis Carrier was refining his own mechanical cooling inventions, and Martin would adopt many of his fellow Buffalonian’s ideas on how to keep indoor air clean and cool.   The Larkin Building would put Buffalo on the map with its innovative marriage of Wright’s design and Carrier-inspired environmental air quality system, and would inspire industrialists and architects all over the world to rethink how they should work how and build.

More to come.

Part 1 of this series on early air conditioning can be found here.


One Response to “Beating the Heat in America’s Early Office Buildings, Pt. 2”

  1. kimbookless August 5, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

    Fantastic article, John!

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