(With thanks to Andrew for prompting.)

On this day in 1960, the New York Times ran a story headlined, “Air Cooling Alters Skyscraper Lines,” recording the comments of the architect Ely Jacques Kahn:

The period of individualistic, imaginatively decorated skyscraper towers has ended…. “All of this modern equipment, including the cooling towers for air-conditioning systems, takes space, and the logistical area was at the top of the structure, resulting in a bulky and not too handsome mass[.]”

The mass implementation of air conditioning in the decades around 1960 gave shape to the skylines of the (at last) New South, and to its culture.

As Raymond Arsenault noted, in 1902 the luxury item for which Arkansas governor Jeff Davis got criticized was a “whirligig fan” (electric ceiling fan); in 1922, Willis Carrier built an air conditioner with a centrifugal compressor, which made cooling quicker and cheaper and began the slow crawl of comfort into the indoor climate of the South. Cinema palaces went first; in St. Petersburg in 1926, the Florida Theatre opened to the boast that “the proud management had the temperature down so low that ladies in evening dresses almost froze!” Congress got AC in 1928; the Senate in 1929; the White House in 1930 and the Supreme Court in 1931.

By 1970 more than half the households in the South had air conditioning. The Weather Bureau had begun its Discomfort Index—documenting heat and humidity—in 1959; in 1962, the Federal Housing Authority claimed a house without AC was obsolete. The 1960s were also the first decade since the Civil War that more people moved to the South than left it—a trend that would only accelerate, creating the Sunbelt.

Air conditioning made for ugly skyscrapers, and ugly houses, too: for decades, southern architecture had featured porches, breezeways, cross-ventilation and elevated foundations—“You look at what the Crackers were doing 75 or 100 years ago … they had the right answers,” said one architect. No more: now you could build the same cookie-cutter pre-fabs they had everywhere else, with the slab foundations and the small windows—and the AC units, which you could crank up at whim. With porches went visiting, the “Florida room,” and a whole way of life.

“I hate air conditioning; it’s a damnfool invention of the Yankees,” said one of Arsenault’s interviewees. “If they don’t like it hot, they can move back up North where they belong.”

Suppose the AC did bring Yankees South, helping to create the modern, culturally conservative, southern GOP: did the in-migraters self-select, to be more conservative, or did they become conservative sometime after passing the Mason-Dixon line?


Raymond Arsenault, “The End of the Long Hot Summer: The Air Conditioner and Southern Culture,” The Journal of Southern History 50, no. 4 (November 1984): 597-628.