Air Duct Towers on the Capitol West Front

Air Duct Towers on the Capitol West Front

By Elliot Carter

There are two unmarked stone towers on the western slope of the Capitol Grounds. Overshadowed by the Capitol dome and downplayed by blocking shrubbery, most people walk by without noticing them. 

These are the end caps for two massive air ducts leading 400 feet up into the belly of the Capitol. You can see the 15 food wide passageways marked here in a 1961 map. The asymmetry of their layout corresponds to differences in elevation on the House and Senate side of the hill.

Architect of the Capital map

Architect of the Capital map

The air ducts date to 1928 and were part of a engineering effort to install air conditioning in the Capitol. Summer in Washington is notoriously muggy, and this unpleasantness was amplified in the crowded and windowless legislative chambers. Some Members of Congress took this really, really seriously.

The House of Representatives Historian notes:

By 1928, Members of Congress were genuinely concerned about their ability to work under such conditions. Several Representatives announced that 202 of their colleagues had died in office in the previous 35 years, and suggested unhealthful air in the House Chamber as a contributing cause. A study of the Capitol’s ventilation was commissioned and recommended air conditioning the chamber. The House jumped at the prospect. In May a call went out for a new system, and within months the Carrier Corporation had designed and installed its “Manufactured Weather,” with air that would “guard the Health, assure the Comfort and inspire the Achievement of the Nation’s representatives.”

The Senate watched this with envy and quickly moved to install their own AC system. Posted notices served to reassure elderly Senators that the cool air was nothing to be frightened of.

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper image

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper image

The system worked by drawing in air from the towers on the Western Front park. A fan the size of a ship's propeller blasted the air through a dense radiator-like array of pipes containing cold water. Then it passed through the humidifier room where a spray of water restored an appropriate level of moisture. Thence, up into the Senate and House, where it entered the chambers through grates in the floors.

REBUILDING THE SENATE FLOOR IN 1923. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS PHOTO

REBUILDING THE SENATE FLOOR IN 1923. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS PHOTO

The Carrier Corporation - perhaps excessively - predicted that the AC would have "a profound effect upon our governmental system! Congress may voluntarily remain in session throughout the summer, in order that our Congressmen may be protected from the intolerable discomforts and dangers of the ordinary outdoor weather!”

Those air duct towers deserve a plaque befitting their impact on our great democracy.

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