VA History: Air Conditioning

In July 1957, installation of the first central air conditioning system began at VA’s Central Office.

Willis Carrier, an engineer and inventor from New York, patented the first air conditioner in 1902 and technology evolved so that eventually entire buildings could be cooled. Most people believed, in those days, that the human body should not be cooled or chilled as illness followed afterwards. They deemed sweating essential for optimal health as it removed toxins from the blood.

The U.S. Capitol Building was the first Federal facility to have central air conditioning installed beginning in 1928. Air conditioners did not become a part of GSA’s building standards until 1955.  Retrofitting central air conditioning systems into older Federal buildings was very complex work that required sensitivity in preserving each building’s historic character in the process. Air conditioning the older buildings took place largely in the 1950s and 1960s with many VA hospitals and field offices not getting them until the 1970s. The air conditioning project at VACO was completed at the end of 1958.

VA and its predecessor employees kept cool at work in several ways. Office windows were opened as needed and a variety of fans were the typical methods for cooling the air in an office setting. Window air conditioning units were available after 1931 and used as budgets allowed. Salt tablets were available for employees who worked outside and VA policies were in place for leave in extreme heat conditions.

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Veterans Bureau, May 20, 1924, in what today is known as the VA Central Office building. Notice that at least one window is open and oscillating fans are mounted on the wall all the way down. (Library of Congress photo)

Story: VA Historian

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