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January 20, 2011

Keeping cool

On a cold day like today let's talk about air conditioning ...

gatesmansion.jpg

Recognize this house? Frankly, I would be surprised if you did given that this house was torn down in 1956. This house was known as the "Gates Castle" and was located at 2501 East Lake of the Isles Boulevard in Minneapolis. According to the July 11, 1957 edition of the Star Tribune, the mansion had 40 bedrooms, gold doorknobs, parquet floors, and huge crystal chandeliers, all for the cost of $1 million. You can see more of this amazing residence through the Minnesota History Center Visual Resource Database.

What makes this mansion especially amazing, though, is that is was the first home in America to have air conditioning.

Built by Charles Gates in 1914 to entertain guests in "Italian Renaissance grandeur" the house also boasted an absolutely enormous "climate control unit" designed by Willis Carrier of Syracuse, NY. When completed, the first home air conditioner was almost 7 feet high, 6 feet wide, and 20 feet long, and it used ammonia as the coolant. And even more amazing (and probably luckily for the would-be residents of the home given the use of ammonia as the coolant), it is unknown if this air conditioner was ever used.

Before Charles Gates and his new bride were set to move into the mansion, Gates died. It is unknown how much his widow stayed in the mansion after his death, but in 1916 she remarried and moved east. The house was then sold to a man from St. Paul, but apparently he never lived there either. Again, the home was then demolished in 1956.

What a tragedy, heh? Like many people, though, I find it fascinating that a home in Minnesota, a state known mostly for its brutal winters, is the location for the first home air conditioning unit in the world. We do have some pretty hot and humid summers too, but the first home air conditioner? Here? You gotta admit that is somewhat unexpected.

Of course, today we take air conditioning and much of its history for granted. Personally I find the history and social ramifications of air conditioning fascinating. For example, air conditioning has drastically changed the culture of the South. Some argue that that the heat and humidity of the South gave the region some of its distinctive flair and unique architecture, but air conditioning has caused the South to be a more indoor culture. It has also made the region a more livable place for northerners to move in and bring their own cultural differences with them.

Some people also blame air conditioning for the rise of malls (going to indoor shopping areas rather than downtown), childhood obesity (kids play indoors way more today), the size of government (more comfortable office spaces has meant more "servants of the people"), or even the demise of trains and the rise of the automobile for long trips across the country. Could our reliance on foreign oil be pinned, in part, on the majestic air conditioner?

Personally, I think air conditioning has had a profound impact on a lot aspects of our lives, both good and bad, and that we haven't given this impact very much thought. If I was a smart person I would put together a book discussing the social ramifications of air conditioning. The stories, anecdotes, data, evidence ... it all seems to be there just waiting for someone to put it together in an accessible, entertaining, and thought provoking way.

Maybe I'll be that someone. Or maybe I'll keep being lazy. Stay tuned.

Posted by snackeru at January 20, 2011 7:32 AM

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