Our Cool House

In a land of heat and humidity, a house with central air was king.

Retro home heating thermostat. Getty Images

All houses have stories. Ours is central air. The HVAC system caught our eye on the walk-through in 1986 because, well, it was huge. A super-size horizontal air handler rested on a stand above the basement floor. Inside the unit were two coils, one for cooling and one for heating. A duct system in the walls circulated cool or warm air throughout the house, depending on the season.

What we were looking at was the original HVAC system from 1937.

Our first impression of the house in Woodside Park, not far from downtown Silver Spring, was that it was unusual to have a 240,000 BTU steam boiler in a structure this size, some 2,000 square feet.

While central air had first reached some theaters and office buildings, it wasn’t until 1936 that the Michigan-based Kelvinator Company begin to install residential systems like ours. But the trend toward central air gained momentum only slowly. And the next best thing, window units, wouldn’t be widely available until the 1950s.

Our Kelvin Home, as these centrally-cooled houses were called, was the first in Montgomery County, one of two introduced in the metro area when our house first went up for sale. And, it was a breath of fresh air, maybe too cool given the month. On Nov. 13, 1937, an ad several columns wide in the Sunday Washington Evening Star promoted it with a banner headline: “Showing today — The Famous Kelvin Home, 648 Highland Drive, Woodside Park.”

Washingtonians, who have always suffered from swamp-like heat and humidity in the summer, were interested.

The ad copy went on to preach: “If you are interested in seeing a real home be sure to inspect today. Architecturally perfect, distinctively designed, built of brick veneer over vaporseal celotex.”Curiously, central air is lost among dozens of details, including “slate roof, painted walls, oak floors, venetian blinds, and copper plumbing.” And, lost too was our home’s history, until we read about it in “Home Sites of Distinction: The History of Woodside Park,” published in 1998 by our neighbor Robert Oshel, a longtime resident of Woodside Park and its official historian.

“The house sold for $13,500 in 1941 according to county deed records,” he said.

We knew nothing about our house when we bought it, except for what a few former owners had left behind that spoke to activities of daily life like the glass milk bottles buried near the back door, an in-ground garbage can whose lid lifted with a foot pedal, a clothesline anchored on tall metal poles, and by surprise, a pair of gold and lapis earrings and matching watch broach discovered under a loose floor board in a walk-in closet.

Oshel tells the real story, digging into microfilm archives, culling through photographs, plats and deeds, sales brochures, advertisements and interviews to trace the history of Woodside Park, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

When I asked him, why he thought the Kelvinator Company had put the Kelvin Home on Highland Drive, a densely tree-lined street, that connects Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue, he says he thinks it has to more with Woodside Park’s origin story, from farm estate to Woodside Development Corporation.

Oshel says in 1922 the company began selling acre-size lots, and owners would hire the architects and builders, allowing the neighborhood to grow on the contours of the land in its park-like setting.

Despite its urban location near downtown Silver Spring, Woodside Park retains much of its early natural beauty, with streets that follow ridges, meadows and streambed of the former farm.

And it is this park-like setting that brought central air to our house, and cools us on hot days. Each upgrade to our Kelvin Home has required skilled tradesmen. They are awed by the workmanship of our early HVAC system, appreciative to see the history of their industry in a client’s basement.

Rosanne Skirble is a freelance writer who lives in Silver Spring’s Woodside Park.


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