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Features

99 Clinton Street, #8 (Douglas Elliman) 99 Clinton Street, #8 (Douglas Elliman)
With the unofficial start of summer upon us, we are already seeing temperatures climb and our comfort levels decline. 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. On several occasions over the past several years, the heat index has soared past 100 degrees in New York City, prompting “excessive heat warnings.” When natural window ventilation and ceiling fans can’t keep up, turning some units into ovens, the situation grows dangerous, especially for the elderly.

In response to the high heat index, the city has implemented Cool It! NYC, an initiative aimed at keeping New Yorkers safe during periods of extreme heat. This includes a list of "cooling centers" like libraries and community centers (which operated with safety precautions in place last summer), as well as a map of parks with water features and the designation of some Open Streets as "Cool Streets." 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
404-West-48th-Street-01 All images of 404 West 48th Street via Douglas Elliman
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From the Listing: Architecturally-designed, totally renovated prewar one bedroom in mint condition with low monthlies located on a prime tree-lined block in Hell's Kitchen. Just one flight up in a well-maintained coop featuring laundry, storage and garden patio. Apartment features generous living and dining space, quiet bedroom that fits a queen-sized bed, central air conditioning, exposed brick, wood-burning fireplace, high ceilings, hardwood floors with open kitchen and spa-like bath. See floor plan and full details here.

44-West-76th-Street-01 All images of 44 West 76th Street via Halstead
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From the Listing: Residence # 5 is located on the second floor of a 6-unit elevator mansion built in 1889 and completely reimagined. It features HVAC central air available 365 days a year, video intercom, high-end water filtration system, and more. This oversized one-bedroom duplex home has room for everything with a 19x19 living room, a full size dining area, and home office nook. Cozy up in winter with your own wood-burning fireplace and watch the birds outside from your soaring almost 8-foot tall windows with original wood shutters and views of the beautiful tree lined street. The kitchen has been updated with stainless French door fridge, a gas cook top, and double electric baker's oven - perfect for making sweet treats! See floor plan and full details here.

55-Poplar-Street-01 All images of 55 Poplar Street via Brown Harris Stevens
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From the Listing: Soaring ceilings and private outdoor space distinguish this unique Brooklyn Heights condo from all the rest! The main level features a gracious living room, dining area and roomy bedroom with architect-designed storage spaces. This charming home also features a brand new, open chef's kitchen with quartz countertops and stainless steel appliances, an enormous loft space, a stylish bathroom, lovely eastern exposure through oversized windows, new wide-plank flooring, recessed lighting, an in-unit washer/dryer, and secluded private patio. The 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.

215-West-88th-Street-01 All images of Merrion via Douglas Elliman
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From the Listing: This prewar gem offers incredible charm and character, enhanced by high-end contemporary finishes that exude modern luxury. Oversized Thermopane windows on triple exposures brighten the ambience with natural light and provide great insulation. Central air conditioning keeps the climate cool and comfortable on hot summer days and nights. The well-proportioned living/dining room is perfect for lounging and entertaining, highlighted by lovely paintable textured Victorian wallpaper and custom-fitted roller shades. To the right of the foyer is a fabulous wall of custom closets leading to the stunning windowed kitchen, also accented by tasteful Grasscloth and featuring BM Essex Green painted cabinetry, brass hardware, white tiled backsplash, sleek countertops, and top-of-the-line stainless steel appliances by Bosch and Sub-Zero. See floor plan and full details here.

434-Union-Street-01 All images of 434 Union Street via Compass
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From the Listing: Residence C is a sun-flooded and impeccably renovated two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit with its own 415-square-foot private roof deck with sweeping views of downtown Brooklyn, emblematic of the ultimate indoor-outdoor Brooklyn chic condo living. An easy two flight walk up, this exquisitely designed apartment features 10' ceilings and wide plank white oak flooring throughout, Mitsubishi Hyper Heat and central air conditioning dual systems and video intercom. Upon entering the home you will find a superbly designed open style chef's kitchen which features gray and white veined Calacatta Laza Quartz countertops with matching slab backsplashes, integrated custom Alusso Natura Sherwood Dartmoor cabinetry with modern slab doors in a dark grey oak finish, peninsula with waterfall edges for dining and prep, deep stainless steel sink with high-end appliance and fixtures. See floor plan and full details here.

140-Luquer-Street-01 All images of 140 Luquer Street via Compass
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From the Listing: Residence 3 is a bright, immaculately renovated never before lived in two bedroom two bathroom apartment with an attractive 432-square-foot private roof deck with breathtaking southern views. The showstopper apartment features over 9' ceilings and wide plank white oak flooring throughout, Mitsubishi Hyper Heat and central air conditioning dual systems, video intercom and its own on demand hot water heater. A large open concept great room provides plenty of space to comfortably stage a living room while also having a dedicated and distinct area for formal dining. The three oversized windows in the great room frame cinematic vistas of a quiet streetscape of beautiful townhomes and open sky views. See floor plan and full details here.

58-Strong-Place-01 All images of The Landmark at Strong Place via Douglas Elliman
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From the Listing: This sprawling 2-bedroom, 2-bath duplex condo was converted in 2010 and has eastern facing mahogany windows and original details throughout. Over 1,150 square feet, washer/dryer in unit, central air, ample storage, and stunning morning light - this home is a rare and epic gem. The building is a beautiful, historic converted 19th century church with storage in the basement, a state-of-the-art gym, bike storage, and common courtyard space. Dogs and cats welcome. See floor plan and full details here.

140-West-22nd-Street-01 All images of The Clement Clarke via Corcoran
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From the Listing: South-facing one-bedroom, two-bathroom with home office and terrace, is located in the coveted boutique condominium, The Clement Clarke. This impeccably kept, generously proportioned unit features 11-foot beamed ceilings, 8-foot solid core doors and American walnut 5-inch plank flooring throughout. The open kitchen is outfitted with crystal white stone cast glass countertops & backsplash, Alta Cucina custom rosewood kitchen cabinets with under cabinet lighting, and high-end appliances. Additional features include in-unit washer and dryer, central air with individual room controls and pre-wiring for technology. See floor plan and full details here.

99-Clinton-Street-01 All images of 99 Clinton Street via Douglas Elliman
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From the Listing: Come home to this meticulously renovated duplex currently configured as a 2-bed/2.5-bath plus home office and den plus option for third bedroom - all nestled within a stunning historical church. The generous layout features soaring ceilings highlighted by original/solid wooden beams, abundant light shining through western exposure, and original, stained-glass windows protected and insulated by storm windows. The first floor boasts expansive open living space seamlessly connected to lounge and dining areas complete with gorgeous and original wide-plank pine floors, a working wood-burning fireplace, built-in firewood storage, and a raised marble hearth. Additional features include central air and heat (Nest thermostat system), pocket doors throughout, and extra storage available in the attic. See floor plan and full details here.

20-Henry-Street-01 All images of 20 Henry Street via Stribling & Associates
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From the Listing: Gracious, southwest-facing, loft-like home has light pouring in throughout the day through the 6 oversized windows. This absolutely stunning home features soaring 10.5 foot ceilings and original heavy timber beams and columns and central air conditioning. The open chef's kitchen, which is equipped with Caesarstone countertops, Grohe faucet, custom Wenge cabinetry, top-of-the line imported fixtures, along with high end Bosch stainless steel appliances opens itself up into the large light filled corner great room which is the perfect space for entertaining. See floor plan and full details here.

151-East-37th-Street-01 All images of 151 East 37th Street via Engel & Volkers
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From the Listing: The one-time home of famed American playwright Tennessee Williams, this sizable residence on two levels feels like a spacious single-family home! With north and south exposures, both the upper and lower levels get dazzling southern light while the northern windows overlook historic townhouses and quiet, manicured gardens. Throughout the home, there are many classic, prewar details such as hardwood floors, crown moldings, marble fireplace mantles, extra high ceiling heights of 9-10 feet, and a dramatic Atelier skylight in the spacious, bookcase-lined living room. Modern conveniences comfortably complement the home, including new windows, all-new wallpaper, custom closets, central air, and a new Elvox intercom system. See floor plan and full details here.

150-Nassau-Street-01 All images of 150 Nassau Street via Corcoran
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From the Listing: Enter this oversized downtown apartment into the airy, open main space featuring an easy-flowing layout between all the rooms, hardwood floors throughout, a gas fireplace and a dining area with plenty of room for an oversized table. The large living room space is perfect for entertaining and also includes four windows providing natural light coming in from the west. Head into the wide open chef's kitchen with pristine Carrara marble counters, modern stainless steel appliances including a dishwasher and gas range. The large primary bedroom features custom designed closets, walk-in closet with plenty of space and an en suite bath. There is central air and heat throughout. 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.