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Jackson Foundry Lofts, #1B (Compass) Jackson Foundry Lofts, #1B (Compass)
With a heat wave upon us and heat index values expected to reach about 100 degrees this week, the National Weather Service has issued a heat advisory for New York City through Sunday, July 24. In response to the heat, the city has opened - think public libraries, community facilities, and senior centers - across the five boroughs. Thanks to a partnership with Petco, a number of these are pet-friendly; locations may be found here.
In addition to the cooling centers, the city has extended public pool hours to create more opportunities to beat the heat. Con Edison offers advice for staying cool and saving money, and has braced itself for service outages that could be triggered by the high demand for electricity caused by air conditioning.
However, while landlords are required to heat apartments during the colder months, tenants are generally left on their own when it comes to cooling their homes. Central air conditioning has become the norm in new buildings, but those who live in buildings that were constructed before its invention have to make do with window units and/or fans. With the potential for a health crisis every summer, it’s natural to wonder, what was summer like in New York before the invention of air conditioning?

Life Before Air Conditioning

As anyone who has lived through a New York City heatwave might imagine, life in the city prior to the widespread availability of air conditioning ranged from highly uncomfortable to deadly. Until air conditioning became widely accessible in the 1960s, summers were often marked by high death tolls as people crammed into tenements in high-density neighborhoods, like the Lower East Side, succumbed to the heat.
On July 4, 1872, the New York Times reported that 100 city residents had died from heat exposure in the previous 48 hours, but the article also noted that in many cities, such as Calcutta where temperatures often soar above 90, residents still manage to cope. The article suggested that the high death toll may be more directly linked to New Yorkers’ love of “spirituous drinks,” which also tend to be consumed in much higher quantities during heatwaves.
New York’s stifling tenements and poor heat coping strategies were not the only problem during early heatwaves. To this day, New Yorkers still complain about the sweltering conditions on MTA subway platforms (last week, reported temperatures were well above 100 degrees in many stations), but in the early 20th century, commuters were even worse off. When a subway rolled into the station on a hot day, it brought no relief. Indeed, commuters had no choice but to cram onto crowded and sweltering subway cars and not always without consequence. During the city’s deadly 1911 heatwave, the rush hour subway situation was described by one reporter as follows: “As each train crept into a station prostrated passengers were assisted to the benches. At the Grand Central Station Dr. Baer of Flower Hospital attended many of the sufferers. Many others were rushed to the drug stores in the vicinity.” Four years later, during another heatwave, a 45-year-old subway worker was reportedly so “crazed by the heat after a day of hard work” that he committed suicide.

Coping with the Heat: Outdoor Sleeping, Floating Baths and Ice Houses

Despite the perils faced by city residents prior to the invention of air conditioning, resourceful New Yorkers’ have always found ways to cope with the summer heat.
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library.
One of the most popular heat-coping strategies was simply to sleep outdoors. During a heat wave in late July 1892, the New York Times reported, “On the East Side many families moved into the streets which were lined with baby carriages and cribs while the grown up persons lounged about in doorways or took cat naps lying on trucks or stretched out on the pavement.” While some city residents headed outdoors to sleep on the street, others headed to Central Park or out to Coney Island. During a June heatwave in 1923, the mayor declared all city parks to permit outdoor sleeping. During the same heatwave, the New York Times reported that the “Coney Island sands were crowded all night by suffering families from tenements.”
Although both the East and the Hudson rivers were highly polluted bodies of water by the late 19th century due to the presence of industrial and human waste of all kinds, until the mid 20th century, swimming in both bodies of water remained a popular way for New Yorkers to cool off. Swimming, however, also came with its risks. Drowning deaths often spiked during local heatwaves. Fortunately, for the more cautious, there were also a number of floating baths located along the shores of the Hudson and East River. Popular from the early 19th century onwards, these baths or pools offered a controlled swimming environment on the city’s local waterways (the floating baths were enclosed and usually only 2.5 to 4.5 feet deep). The first free public floating baths appeared in the East River in 1870 and by the 1890s, the city had 15 baths in operation on both the west and east shores of Manhattan. The baths, eventually taken over by New York City Parks, were finally closed to the public in the early 1940s due to deteriorating water conditions or more likely, a growing recognition of the risks associated with swimming in such water.
Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library.
But perhaps the best way to beat the summer heat in the city prior to the invention of air conditioning was to acquire a job working in a local ice house. Although a grueling job by all accounts, ice houses were no doubt the coolest work environments in the region prior to the arrival of air-conditioned workplaces.
Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library.

The Invention of Air Conditioning

Relief from the heat first arrived in the early 1930s when many commercial buildings in New York started to install air conditioning units. The first residential adopters were primarily luxury buildings, including new high-rise residences. But adoption was by no means fast. This is largely due to the fact in 1931, an individual room air conditioner, which one can now purchase for less than a $100 at most local hardware stores, cost between $10,000 and $50,000 (about $120,000 to $600,000 by today’s standards). By the 1940s, air conditioners were finding their way into a growing range of homes but still remained out-of-reach for most average citizens. Over the next two decades, however, the cost of air conditioning units continued to drop, and by the 1960s most city residents had at least limited access to air conditioning in their homes, at work or in a publicly accessible space.
Illustrated bulletin No. 25 descriptive of the Bayley Turbo Atomizer, the Bayley Turbo Air Washer and air conditioner for cleaning, cooling, tempering, humidifying and dehumidifying air by Bayley Manufacturing Company, Published c. 1920
Central air conditioning in the 1970s represented another major innovation on the cooling front, but by the 1990s, Freon, a central component of central air units, had been linked to ozone depletion, putting a chill on many people’s love affair with air conditioning. While many Freon units have now been replaced, Freon is not the only problem. Whenever you turn on your air conditioner to cool down, your unit is emitting waste heat. This waste heat contributes to what is known as “heat island effect”—a condition unique to densely populated areas that leads to higher than average temperatures. Some studies suggest that air conditioners alone may be driving up temperatures by as much as two degrees. In theory, then, air conditioners are making our cities hotter not cooler.
Before you turn off your air conditioner, strip down to your underwear and start preparing to sleep in a local park, however, bear in mind that there are some precautions you can take to at least mitigate the harmful side effects of air conditioning. If you have an older unit, replace it with a newer and more environmentally friendly and efficient one. If you feel like you’re living in an ice box, turn up the thermostat. Finally, if you go out, turn off your unit entirely or raise the thermostat even higher.
nyc air conditioner Image by Traci Lawson

Prewar Listings with Central Air
315-Bleecker-Street-01 Bleecker Court, #315 (Compass
From the Listing: Renovated one-bedroom home with a fantastic layout in a prime Noho / Greenwich Village location. This spacious apartment gets great natural light from oversized, east facing, double-paned windows and is very quiet. Beautiful open kitchen with granite countertops, plenty of cabinet space and stainless steel appliances, including a 5-burner Bosch stove, dishwasher and microwave. This home also features hardwood floors, an exposed brick wall, dimmable, LED recessed lighting, and central A/C. See floor plan and full details here.

11-East-36th-Street-01 Morgan Lofts, #1104 (Douglas Elliman)
From the Listing: This dreamy sun-drenched loft boasts oversized 8-foot windows facing north along with airy 12-foot ceilings, rich hardwood floors, sleek interior design and refined finishes throughout. The gracious open-concept layout is ideal for relaxing and entertaining, met by a stylish high-end open chef’s kitchen. Additional conveniences include a stacked in-unit washer and dryer, and central air conditioning for climate comfort. Sponsor unit - no condo approval needed. See floor plan and full details here.

325-West-21st-Street-01 325 West 21st Street, #3 (Triplemint)
From the Listing: Designed with entertaining in mind the living room is flooded with light, featuring 10’ ceilings and plenty of space for living and dining. The kitchen, renovated with top-of-the-line stainless steel appliances is ideal for the inspired chef. The lower bedroom is serene and relaxing and features an abundance of storage and a spa-like en-suite bathroom. Finished with plank wood floors, central split unit air conditioning, a washer-dryer, and more, this home is sure to impress. See floor plan and full details here.

434-Union-Street-01 All images of 434 Union Street via Compass
From the Listing: Bring your architect to this grand classic prewar apartment that boasts two oversized bedrooms, two en suite baths, four light filled exposures, beautiful and original inlaid wood floors, high ceilings and no less than 14 large windows. A 38-foot living/dining area and a windowed kitchen afford endless possibilities including the comfortable addition of a generous third bedroom. Original prewar detail throughout and massive storage space, plus modern amenities including a private laundry room and central air conditioning make this lovely apartment a one of a kind value opportunity to live on Riverside Drive’s most coveted enclave. See floor plan and full details here.

2-Gracie-Court-01 2 Gracie Court, #3G (Compass)
From the Listing: Apartment 3G has been fully renovated and is a move-in-ready loft-like home that is ready for the next lucky owner. The open kitchen has great flow between the dining area and kitchen area which features a marble countertop, stainless steel appliances, dishwasher, and garbage disposal. The apartment is outfitted with central AC via Mitsubishi electric mini-split system. The living is very spacious which leaves space for the imagination of a Peloton or home office and has a lovely view looking out onto Grace Court. See floor plan and full details here.

170-East-79th-Street 170 East 79th Street, #MAISONETTE (Corcoran)
From the Listing: Beautifully renovated and thoughtfully designed, Maisonette A is a two-bedroom, two-bathroom duplex on East 79th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues. Entering through the private front door, the charming first level foyer leads to the dining room and recently updated kitchen spaces. These areas, divided into two carefully designed windowed alcoves, feature granite countertops, high end Viking appliances, a wine refrigerator, and white shaker cabinetry with bountiful storage. There is central air throughout the duplex. See floor plan and full details here.

55-Poplar-Street-01 55 Poplar Street, #4K (Compass)
From the Listing: Featuring soaring 15’ 5" ceilings, the dramatic double-height windows offer open views to the Brooklyn Bridge, East River and beyond! The main level features a gracious living room, separate dining area and roomy bedroom. On the upper level (with additional entrance on 5th floor), the loft space is perfect for use as a home office, second sleeping area, storage space or all of the above--with potential for a second full bathroom. Historic 19th Century building features modern conveniences, including renovated common spaces, central air conditioning and heating systems, elevator service, a live-in superintendent and an award-winning common garden (now a Certified Wildlife Habitat) for barbecues and relaxing with neighbors! See floor plan and full details here.

30-Main-Street-01 Sweeney Building, #4D (Compass)
From the Listing: This expansive 1 bedroom plus home office, 1.5 bathroom loft is truly a gem that invites luxury living and is pin-drop quiet. The impeccably-designed apartment sits adjacent to the fabulous waterfront and Brooklyn Bridge Park, in a quintessential converted 1900s factory offering all the elements you love in a loft like 11+-foot beamed ceilings, rich hardwood floors, massive light-filled windows and refined finishes throughout its generously-sized rooms. A convenient full-size laundry room and central air for climate comfort heighten the allure. See floor plan and full details here.

130-Jackson-Street-01 Jackson Foundry Lofts, #1B (Compass)
From the Listing: Apartment 1B at the Jackson Foundry is brimming with prewar charm from its Civil War munitions factory days, evidenced by the striking timber beams, steel rolling fire doors, exposed brick, and cast iron columns. 130 Jackson St, Apt 1B is a spacious, 1,663-square-foot corner duplex with 2 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, an open floor plan with chef’s kitchen, a massive private storage and laundry room, central air conditioning, and two ensuites for flexible primary suites. See floor plan and full details here.

58-Strong-Place-01 The Landmark at Strong Place, #1A (Compass)
From the Listing: Residence 1A in The Landmark at Strong is a sprawling 3 bedroom, 2.5 bathroom condo triplex in a stunning converted church. Exquisitely designed by acclaimed Baxt + Ingui Architects, this home tastefully marries the grandeur of the mid-19th century with luxurious modern finishes and space to spread out and live. This space features 14-foot soaring high ceilings, unique original details and stunning Gothic revival custom built-ins. Additional features include central air, in-unit laundry, and video intercom. See floor plan and full details here.

498-West-End-Avenue 498 West End Avenue (Brown Harris Stevens)
From the Listing: Apartment 4B is a pristine and newly renovated three-bedroom residence with three windowed bathrooms. This home features an expansive, loft-like great room - open plan living room, floating dining area, sitting area - just shy of 30 feet; plus an impressive, oversized kitchen, which stands out as a modern showpiece. This beautiful home includes a proper entry foyer, parquet patterned white oak floors in the great room with 5" wide plank flooring in the bedrooms, solid core doors with polished nickel hardware, a full size washer and dryer and dual zone central A/C. See floor plan and full details here.

171-West-71st-Street-01 The Dorilton, #7/8B (Brown Harris Stevens)
From the Listing: This magnificent, one of a kind, eleven room home in the legendary Dorilton building is brimming with the exquisite charm of its era. Turn-of-the-century details include high ceilings, French doors, inlaid wood floors, Juliet balconies, stained glass windows and four fireplaces. grand living room, formal dining room with french doors and stained glass windows, both with fireplaces, exude elegance at its very finest. Additional perks include in-unit washer/dryer and central air conditioning. See floor plan and full details here.

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Contributing Writer Cait Etherington Cait Etherington has over twenty years of experience working as a journalist and communications consultant. Her articles and reviews have been published in newspapers and magazines across the United States and internationally. An experienced financial writer, Cait is committed to exposing the human side of stories about contemporary business, banking and workplace relations. She also enjoys writing about trends, lifestyles and real estate in New York City where she lives with her family in a cozy apartment on the twentieth floor of a Manhattan high rise.