News & Politics

How Washingtonians Stayed Cool Before Air Conditioning

Plus, places where you can beat the heat.

Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Updated on July 25, 2016, at 10:03 a.m.

Washingtonians of a certain age—i.e., pre-air-conditioning—look back fondly on the forced bonhomie of sleeping in public parks when late summer’s extreme heat and humidity compelled them outdoors in search of a breeze. DC’s Meridian Hill Park, with its cooling fountains, and Hains Point, at the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, were favorite spots for camping out on muggy nights.

The stifling temperatures were inescapable by day. During the heat wave of August 1953, more than 26,000 federal workers were sent home after lunch. Those lost hours—as well as wartime studies using federal employees as guinea pigs—showed that cool offices increased typists’ productivity, prompting the General Services Administration to fit out federal buildings with AC beginning in 1956.

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Families at home continued to bear the brunt. TV and radio personality Robert Aubry Davis, a District native, remembers seeking shelter at the Department of Agriculture’s Jefferson Auditorium, said to be the chilliest place in Washington thanks to its cutting-edge air conditioning. “They used to show films like How to Stamp Out Hog Cholera,” says Davis, but the fare didn’t matter as long as it was cool.

The USDA building, like most federal buildings after 9/11, is off-limits to the public most days. But several Smithsonian museums offer free films. We recommend the Freer and Sackler Galleries’ celebration of Hong Kong movie mania, running till August 7 in the crisp climate of Meyer Auditorium.

This article appears in our August 2015 issue of Washingtonian.