Air conditioning's downtown debut Baltimore Glimpses

July 21, 1998|By Gilbert Sandler

MANY PEOPLE who are too young to recall what it was like to live through a blistering hot Baltimore summer without air conditioning. Relief from those sultry, airless days came slowly, beginning in the late 1920s and escalating in the 1950s.

Among the first public buildings to employ air conditioning were the big downtown department stores. A 1931 item in Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s monthly newsletter announced that Stewart & Co. department store had air-conditioned its basement.

In 1934, Hutzler Bros. and Hochschild, Kohn & Co. department stores announced plans to provide air conditioning for their basements and first floors. Other establishments that installed air conditioning in the early 1930s include the Rail Grill, Miller Brothers Restaurant and the Lord Baltimore Hotel cafeteria and coffee shop. By 1933, the main Pratt Library and 75 other establishments had air conditioning.

Irwin R. Cohen, president and chief executive officer of RC theaters, which owns and operates movie houses in several states, said in "1935 and 1936, the downtown movie houses -- the Hippodrome, Century, Valencia, Stanley and the New . . . either had air conditioning installed or were being built with it.

"Before air conditioning, movie houses had [electric] fans whirring all over the place. The bigger movie houses had air 'cooling.' This was an arrangement that had electric fans blowing over huge blocks of ice on the roof, sending ice-chilled air down through vents into the theater. Others had huge blowers. Very noisy."

Chilling experience

A lot of old-timers chuckle over those early pre-air conditioning days. But it was no laughing matter to perspiring Baltimoreans in the 1930s and 1940s. What they were interested in was someplace to duck into to get cool. Those places offering a chilly paradise were not bashful about letting the public know. They advertised prominently (with icicles drawn on each letter): "Air-conditioned comfort."

But before air conditioning, one somehow got by. At dusk on stifling nights, many people would flee hot brick rowhouses for the public parks with blankets and pillows in hand for a cool night's sleep. Others would sit outside on stoops or porches, trying to catch a breeze.

Still others took a ride out to Emerson's Farms at Greenspring Valley and Falls roads to escape the heat and enjoy homemade ice cream. The romantically inclined would take the "Bay Belle Moonlighter" down the Patapsco to dine and dance.

The century mark

A way to know what life was like in Baltimore before air conditioning is to go outside some evening when the temperature is 100 and the humidity 80 percent. Get one of those cardboard fans that the funeral homes distribute (if you can find one!). Sit on your stoop or in a chair and start fanning yourself.

When you don't get a hint of relief, you'll know what it was like.

Gilbert Sandler writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 7/21/98

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