People who knew Capt. Montgomery C. Meigs said he was occasionally pompous, but when the job was done to his satisfaction, he said, “This was the most difficult piece of engineering and construction that I have yet to undertake.”
Yet, for the most part, he went unappreciated by his “customers,” those being the U.S. Senators and Representatives. And not just at the time, but for decades to follow.
Capt. Meigs was the superintendent of construction on the two wings being added to the U.S. Capitol, starting in 1855. The job was to take six years.
The older parts of the Capitol building had lousy heat, coming from 16 hot-air furnaces. It had been that way for 50 years when the captain arrived, and when it came to heating, everyone wanted something better.
That was not going to be an easy task because there was a national movement at the time to get away from vitiated air, which Lewis Leeds of Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame) were calling the “National Poison.” They believed that most of what ails human beings came from miasmas flowing from our bodies, and especially, phlogiston, which we now call carbon dioxide, spewing from our lungs. Americans needed fresh air, they said, and lots of it.
It was Capt. Meigs job to provide that fresh air, but it also had to be warm air, and he was working at a time when the science of steam- and hot-water heating was still wet behind the ears.
The original plan for the House of Representatives placed it on the western end of the south wing of the Capitol, overlooking the Mall. The chamber was to have windows on three sides. However, Capt. Meigs knew that the purpose of the space was to allow for debate and he worried that there would be too much noise coming through all those windows. He also realized that all that single-pane glass would create cold drafts in winter and that all that streaming sunlight would be an annoyance to the speakers’ eyes, which could affect their debates. Can’t have that.
So, being the guy in charge, he decided to place the chamber in the center of the building, with the offices and meeting rooms surrounding it. He thought that this would give him better control over the temperature.
To provide light (whale oil lamps couldn’t cut it in a space that large); he placed a huge skylight atop both the Senate- and House Chambers. I’ll bet you didn’t know that. Folks don’t talk about those long-gone skylights because they were a disaster.
But that’s why there are no windows in either the House- or the Senate Chambers. And when asked about all of this 12 years later, Meigs said, “It seems to me that members, occupied in the business of legislation, did not need, and would not have time to enjoy any external prospect.”
In other words, no gazing at all those Americans strolling out there on the Mall. No looking at the cherry blossoms. You’re here to work.
And isn’t that a novel thought.
To design the heating system, Meigs hired Joseph Nason, who was more or less America’s first heating contractor. Nason knew more about heating than anyone in America at the time, having studied under Angier Perkins in London for four years. Perkins had invented high-pressure, hot-water heating, which operated at 350° F, and sometimes wandered up beyond 500°.
Nason, who had his own, much safer, ideas, said that he would provide all the pipe and fittings at a 15% discount from list prices. He would also arrange for an engineer/draftsman for six dollars a day and also first- and second-class workers at their going rate. Nason would provide his consulting services at no charge since the government was buying the pipe and fittings that his Walworth and Nason Company manufactured. The design for both Houses of Congress would have steam boilers, steam coils, brick-masonry ducts, and very large centrifugal, steam-driven fans to move fresh air into the building.
Work began in 1855. No one had ever built fans of such size. Some measured 16 feet in diameter, so Robert Briggs, the hired draftsman/engineer, who would become famous in his own right in the world of heating, built scale models and experimented to learn how much steam power the enormous fans would require.
The fans would blow air across steam coils, made of one-inch, wrought-iron pipe and fittings. Each chamber had 22 coils, each coil containing more than 1,000 linear feet of pipe. Steam entered from the top and moved left and right, like the laces on a sneaker. At the bottom of the coil there was a large steam trap. No one had ever done anything of this size before.
The brick-masonry ducts were divided and subdivided on their way to the chambers and offices. Four boilers provided the steam to the coils and the fan engines. Each side of the Capitol had two of those huge fans. One fan sent heated air to the chamber; the other sent it to the various other rooms on that side of the building.
They tested the system when the House and Senate were in session during the winter of 1857-1858. At first, warm air flowed from registers placed behind the Senators’ chairs. They could control the direction of the heated air by moving a lever. But since Congress operated then pretty much the same way it does today, everyone immediately complained. So Capt. Meigs changed the location of the registers from the seats to the risers of the stairs, and he added deflectors to the wall registers because the visitors were also complaining.
But by 1861, as the Civil War raged, Meigs said, “I have realized all that I undertook to accomplish in regard to light, warmth, ventilation, and fitness for debate and legislation. The health of the legislative bodies has been better and more business has been accomplished in the same time than in the old halls.”
But back to those missing windows. This was the first time a building of this size had been built with artificial heat, ventilation, and soon thereafter, light. Those skylights in the original construction proved to be a huge mistake because they created currents of cold air that fell upon the members of Congress, making them even more miserable.
This was the first time a building of this size had been built with artificial heat, ventilation, and soon thereafter, light.
And the members continued to complain, and in 1865, once the war was over, they called for an inquiry and railed on about the miserable conditions under which they had to work. Some of the senators said that they wished they had natural ventilation. After all, they were perched atop this lovely hill.
Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts said, “There is no public edifice in the world which enjoys the advantages of sight equal to that of this Capitol. When we voluntarily shut ourselves up in this stone cave with glass above, we renounce all the advantages and opportunities of this unparalleled situation. Unless changed by legislation, this room will continue to be as uncomfortable as it is now for centuries.”
And although Captain Meigs said that he had done his job well and was now done with this nasty business, the battle continued right up to the Turn of the Century, with the system going through many changes. They addressed the question of humidity again and again before they got it (sort of) right.
And while this was going on, Lewis Leeds, the fella who first got everyone in the country worked up about vitiated air and the National Poison, had this to say:
“It appears to have been originally designed to exclude the main halls as much as possible from all external influences, and to have all the currents, the heating and the lighting, under perfect artificial control.
“But if the whole nation could be taught the valuable lesson of the great folly of attempting to produce artificial light, artificial heat, and artificially mixed air, that shall equal to that which our Creator has provided for us, that knowledge would be cheaply bought at the great price paid for these buildings.”
In other words, give me a window to open. And perhaps if our current members of Congress had a better view of the Mall, and some fresh air wafting through those open windows, they might even decide to get along with each other.
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