JOHN KELLY’S WASHINGTON

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - Twit­ter: @johnkelly Im­prove An­swer Man’s mood. Send your ques­tions about Washington to an­swer­man@wash­post.com. For pre­vi­ous col­umns, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/johnkelly.

Once upon a time, stone towers were used in an at­tempt to re­duce hot air in the U.S. Capi­tol.

In June of 1894, the Washington Even­ing Star noted that in an ef­fort to beat the heat, more and more mem­bers of Congress started wear­ing clothes made from a fab­ric known as home­spun.

“Nearly half of the Rep­re­sen­ta­tives have adopted the ma­te­rial to a greater or lesser ex­tent,” the Star re­ported. “It is a sort of tow­el­ing, made of flax grown in Ken­tucky and Ten­nessee. It is very coarse and never wears out.”

The writer explained that be­fore the Civil War, home­spun was con­sid­ered “only good enough for Ne­groes, slaves be­ing com­monly dressed in it. Though scarcely pretty, it is very cool. The Web of it is so loose that the breezes blow through freely.”

To­day we would call the fab­ric linen. It re­mains the per­fect ma­te­rial to wear while sit­ting in a room full of hot air.

From the day Congress moved to Washington, its mem­bers have been ob­sessed with keep­ing them­selves com­fort­able. And lit­tle won­der: Our city runs hot and cold. You think your of­fice bat­tles over the ther­mo­stat? Imag­ine work­ing in the U.S. Capi­tol in the 19th cen­tury.

Af­ter last week’s column on the hand­some brick tower at Ju­di­ciary Square that was built in 1881 to suck ven­ti­lat­ing air into a nearby court­house, David Huck­abee of Ar­ling­ton, Va., di­rected An­swer Man to two sim­i­lar towers on the west side of the U.S. Capi­tol. The two stone shafts — the House tower was com­pleted in 1879, the Se­nate tower in 1889 — were part of an ef­fort to make work­ing in the Capi­tol more bear­able.

To study the HVAC his­tory of the Capi­tol is to en­counter a litany of com­plaints about the build­ing’s un­health­ful at­mos­phere. Much brain power was ex­pended on how to get bad air out and good air in, where to place duct­work, whether to have fresh air fall from the ceil­ing or rise from the floor, etc.

Th­ese were not mi­nor con­cerns. Many of­fices had fire­places, and smoke from dozens of chim­neys would swirl around in the odd cur­rents of the Capi­tol dome, often spi­ral­ing back down flues. Car­bonic-acid gas, a byprod­uct of gaslights, would build up in the leg­isla­tive cham­bers.

Var­i­ous ven­ti­la­tion meth­ods were em­ployed. In the 1850s, the mul­ti­tal­ented Mont­gomery Meigs cre­ated a sys­tem that used steam-pow­ered fans to force air through the Capi­tol and across steam coils to warm the in­com­ing air.

The sys­tem did not live up to ex­pec­ta­tions.

In 1868, Her­man Haupt, chief en­gi­neer of the Penn­syl­va­nia Rail­road, and ven­ti­la­tion ex­pert Lewis W. Leeds were tapped to look into things. Leeds noted that in­lets in the floor de­signed to ad­mit warmed or cooled air “were more or less con­tam­i­nated by the refuse tobacco and spit­tle which had ac­cu­mu­lated in them, and the air which came into the room was of­fen­sive from that cause.”

Leeds urged that th­ese in­lets be abol­ished. (Ap­par­ently, it was too much to just ask politi­cians not to spit on the floor.)

The two stone shafts are about 400 feet from the Capi­tol and about 800 feet from each other. As the Star re­ported in 1908: “By tak­ing the air through the stone towers out on the Capi­tol grounds away from all con­tam­i­nat­ing in­flu­ences, a pure and fresh sup­ply is as­sured.” (By “con­tam­i­nat­ing in­flu­ences,” the re­porter didn’t mean lob­by­ists, but dirt and dust from roads, as well as ex­ha­la­tions from the Capi­tol it­self.)

Be­neath the towers were con­duits nearly as big around as a rail­road ter­mi­nal. Huge fans — 12 feet in di­am­e­ter — spun at 110 rpm, draw­ing in fresh air at a speed “pow­er­ful enough to sweep a strong man off his feet.”

As im­pres­sive as this may have been, this was not “man­u­fac­tured weather,” an early term for what we call air con­di­tion­ing. It wasn’t un­til 1928 that the Car­rier in­stalled an air-con­di­tion­ing sys­tem on the House side. The Se­nate soon fol­lowed suit.

There were pre­dic­tions that a cooler en­vi­ron­ment would lessen po­lit­i­cal fric­tions, as sen­a­tors and rep­re­sen­ta­tives found them­selves lit­er­ally less hot­headed. That seems not to have hap­pened. Per­haps only ni­trous ox­ide could im­prove the mood in the Capi­tol to­day.

JOHN KELLY/THE WASHINGTON POST

One of a pair of stone towers, built in 1879 and 1889, which had drawn fresh air into the U.S. Capi­tol for ven­ti­la­tion.

John Kelly's Washington

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