The Chilling of America

The cool world of air conditioning has had a profound impact on society as we know it. A Washington exhibit shows how a welcome frost settled on the nation.

June 17, 1999|By LAURA LIPPMAN | LAURA LIPPMAN,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Before air conditioning, Congress had to take the summers off.

The National Building Museum leaves it to you to decide if this means the invention of air conditioning was necessarily a good thing.

"Stay Cool!," already one of the museum's most popular exhibits since it opened May 1 -- and underwritten, coincidentally, by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers and the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute -- invites visitors to roam through $50,000 worth of galvanized steel "ducts" and contemplate the artifacts of the mechanical system that people notice primarily when it fails.

"We try to show that whether you like air conditioning or not, it's completely transformed culture," says Chrysanthe Broikos, who curated the show with Donald Albrecht. "It's had a tremendous impact, good or bad, and that's why we're interested in it."

The coils, fans and refrigeration units on display are intended as a backdrop to the story of how this 111-year-old invention changed the world's architecture, demographics, entertainment industry and, according to one critic, even literature.

Yes, we said 111 years old, as in 1888. It was then that manufacturers of heat-sensitive products began using newly developed refrigeration techniques to cool work spaces. The following year, Carnegie Hall was outfitted with ice racks in its air ducts. By 1901, the New York Stock Exchange was air conditioned.

But it was 1906 before Stuart Cramer coined the term we now use to describe a system that cools, controls humidity, filters air and has a distribution network. (If you don't have those four elements, says Broikos, you don't have air conditioning.)

Those are just some of the many factoids waiting for visitors at the National Building Museum. A 19th-century structure that has been the site of 14 inaugural balls, the museum is a magnificent public space in its own right, with soaring ceilings, huge Corinthian columns and a fountain in the center of its atrium.

It's also quite cool, in every sense of the word.

The Sun asked me to tour "Stay Cool!" because I am a relatively new convert to air conditioning. Growing up in a house that backed to the wooded hills of Leakin Park, I never needed more than a window fan. I survived five Texas summers without an air-conditioned car and four without an air-conditioned home. (I had one window unit, but the fuses blew every time the refrigerator kicked in.)

For me, the point of returning to Baltimore was to live air conditioning-free once again, to sleep beneath open windows. I hated the rattle and hum of window units, loathed the processed air that clogged my sinuses. Then the city cut down the two trees that shaded my house.

So I traveled the continuum of cooling detailed in "Stay Cool!," albeit in a much briefer period of time. I went from fans, ceiling and window, to window air conditioner units, to non-leaky window air conditioner units to, just a few weeks ago, a central air system.

How much do I like central air? When I saw a compressor similar to the one installed outside my home, I had to restrain myself from violating the museum's "Do not touch" signs, as I wanted to hug it. My conversion is so profound, I can only liken it to Graham Greene's embrace of Catholicism. Greene once wrote that he always knew evil existed, but it was his realization that there might be good in the world that brought him to religion.

For me, the epiphany was that comfort existed. I felt less sheepish about this late-breaking bulletin in my life when I read Alexander Graham Bell's observation, from a 1918 article in National Geographic: "If man has the intelligence to heat his house in the winter time, why does he not cool in the summer? We go up to the Arctic regions and heat our houses and live. We go down to the tropics and die."

But gains involve losses. Here's my own highly subjective list of what air conditioning has wrought, based on the research presented in "Stay Cool!"

Gain: Better chocolate.

Chocolate, when cooled in temperatures above 68 degrees, turns an unappealing gray shade. As a result, early workers had to labor in basements where the conditions were ripe for tuberculosis.

Hungry yet? Then let's note that baked goods are susceptible to "crusting" and "sliming" without air conditioning to regulate the humidity in the air. This turns dough sour.

So these manufacturers -- along with those who made tobacco, pasta and textiles -- were among the pioneers in the air conditioning age. Ultimately, the ability to control temperature and humidity made possible such modern inventions as computer chips and compact discs, which are manufactured in so-called "clean rooms."

So, excuse me while I grab a Goldenberg Peanut Chew, pop my favorite CD in my Discman (Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, "Painted From Memory") and boot up my computer to do a little e-mail.

Loss: Office windows.

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