Skip links

An Old Idea

Last week’s APT Northeast Chapter meeting was held at the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem, Massachusetts, seen above in a not-very-well-drawn postcard. I stayed at the hotel, which was pleasant, and took a look at the building. My room was very small – basically big enough for a twin bed and some space to walk around it, with a modern bathroom that seemed added on. There were a lot of false doors in the hallway and a large number of maids’ closets near the elevator lobby. Looking at the fire floorpan, my guess is that most or all of the rooms used to be the size of my room, with communal baths in the hall. At some point, it was modernized by removing a third of the rooms and using their space to (a) provide bathrooms to the rooms on either side and (b) expand half of the remaining rooms. The original was built in 1925, which was the tail end of the period where people built large hotels without private bathrooms for each room.

In any case, the inside of my room’s door looked like this:

That’s a ventilation grille that was once operable, so that it could be opened or closed. I suspect that little nub just over the peephole was part of the operating mechanism. This is probably a good place to mention that the walls in the hotel are on the thin side, so much so that you have to sign an agreement while checking in stating that you will not make a lot of noise in your room. Having a grille open to the hallway can only make the sound problem worse, so why is it there? Passive ventilation. Summers along the Massachusetts shore are not sweltering hot, but they can get warm, and this building was constructed long before air-conditioning was standard that far north. But if you opened the window in your room and opened the grille, you could get some movement of the air in your room, cooling it. I once lived in a 1910s apartment house in Manhattan that had the same grilles in the doors.

Passive ventilation was everywhere back then. Grand Central Terminal’s huge windows are operable and did a pretty good job of creating an updraft when open. It wasn’t exactly cold in the summer, but it definitely felt cooler than outside. A lot of churches we’ve worked on have grilles concealed in the decorative plaster of the sanctuary ceilings, using the attic space as a plenum leading to an exhaust vent at the ridge. This kind of ventilation required some human intervention, opening and closing grilles and vents, and some basic maintenance of the moving parts. If someone forgot to close a vent, or if the hinges stuck, the system would cool the space in the winter. Over the years, a lot of these systems were sealed or abandoned; in some cases, like Grand Central, modern air-conditioning was introduced.

I learned a bit about passive heating and cooling when I was in school, but it was taught to us as if it was a new idea born of the energy crisis of the 1970s. These ideas have been around for a long long time, and hey! they still work.