The Kelvin Home: Cleveland Heights Leads the Way to "A
New and Better Way of Living"
J. Hubbert, President, Forest Hill Homeowners, Inc.
On Wednesday, September 8, 1937, George W. Mason, president of Nash-Kelvinator
Corporation of Detroit, presided over the opening ceremonies of two "Kelvin
Homes," one at 3202 Rumson Road in Forest Hill and the other at 21361
Stratford Avenue in the Beach Cliff neighborhood of Rocky River. The Kelvin
homes were the first homes built in Cleveland with central air conditioning.
They also featured "the latest discoveries and achievements of housing
science," including an electric Kelvinator range, refrigerator, washing
machine and ironer. According to an advertisement, they were "homes where
all the drudgery is eliminated -- where tasks are done electrically."
The grand opening of the Kelvin homes was accompanied by much fanfare
and was attended by city officials and civic leaders. The event was heralded
by a flurry of articles and advertisements in the Cleveland Plain Dealer,
Cleveland Press and Cleveland News. Various contractors and decorators
trumpeted their involvement in the project. The Second Federal Savings
and Loan Association got into the act by running an ad touting its mortgage
services with the tagline "Comfort in your financing, too" with a drawing
of the Forest Hill Kelvin home. The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company installed
a new "Butterfly" piano in both homes and their playing was featured on
the "Kelvin home radio show" on WGAR on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
The dedication ceremonies were broadcast as well. After the ceremonies
were completed, Mason spoke at a luncheon held at the Advertising Club.
The homes were designed
by Detroit architect J. Ivan Dise and built by Oil Heating Devices,
Inc., Kelvinator's local distribution agent. In an interview in the
Cleveland News, the president of Oil Heating Devices, W. R. Kromer,
claimed that because of the high efficiency cooling unit, the cost
of year-round comfort in the "specially-designed" Kelvin home would
in many cases be less than only the cost of heating a comparable residence.
The Kelvin House at 3202 Rumson Road
Kromer predicted "universal acceptance of
residential air conditioning in the near future."
The Kelvin home in Forest Hill is in some sense a result of the failure
of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s, original plan for the development. When
Andrew J. Thomas' French Norman homes on Brewster Road and adjacent streets
failed to sell, Charles O. Heydt, Rockefeller's trusted advisor and president
of Abeyton Realty Corporation, and James C. Jones, manager of the Forest
Hill allotment, explored innovations in home building to attract attention
to the development. The results of their efforts include the five Arcy
Corporation steel frame homes on Monticello Boulevard and one of the first
air conditioned homes in Cleveland being built on Rumson.
Despite all the hype, the Kelvin home did not sell immediately (perhaps
due to its proximity to Dean Dairy on Mayfield at what is now U-Haul)
and was rented out like many other Rockefeller homes. In an October 1938
letter to Frank S. Staley, who worked closely with Heydt on real estate
matters for Rockefeller, Jones states that the architectural design of
the "Kelvin house was only accepted after numerous allowances were made
for the location." It appears that Rockefeller did not care for the newer
homes being built in the development and Jones was forced to defend the
choices of his architect. In his response, Staley indicates that Rockefeller
preferred the garage to be hidden behind the house instead of being a
prominent element of the front elevation. Interestingly, he also notes
that Rockefeller's sons Nelson and Laurance, perhaps with more contemporary
taste, did not agree with their father.
The Story of Kelvinator In 1914, Nathaniel B. Wales, a young inventor, began developing
refrigerating mechanisms for home installation. In 1916, Wales, with the
financial backing of Arnold H. Goss, then secretary of the Buick Automobile
Company, formed the Electro-Automatic Refrigerating Company in Detroit,
Michigan, becoming the first company to produce an automatic refrigerator
for the household market. Almost immediately, the firm's name was changed
to the Kelvinator Company in honor of the British physicist who originated
the absolute temperature scale (measured in kelvins).
By 1923, the Kelvinator Company held 80 percent of the market for electric
refrigerators. In 1926, Kelvinator acquired the Leonard Refrigerator Company,
a Grand Rapids, Michigan, manufacturer of cleanable ice-box cabinets.
That same year the company acquired Nizer Corporation, the largest maker
of ice-cream cabinets. George W. Mason joined Kelvinator as president
in 1928. Although only 37, Mason already had an impressive record with
Chrysler and Copeland Products.
In 1937, Kelvinator merged with Nash Motor Company, forming Nash-Kelvinator
Corporation. Mason served as the president of the joint operation. As
a division of Nash-Kelvinator, Kelvinator continued to grow, expanding
into making condensers and compressors for manufacturers of other makes
of refrigerators, freezers, and air conditioning units. The company's
household product line was supplemented by electric ranges, water heaters,
home freezers, room air conditioners, kitchen cabinets, sinks, kitchen
waste disposers, and in 1952 a complete line of home laundry equipment
acquired through the purchase of Altorfer Bros. Company (ABC), of Peoria,
Kelvinator was purchased by White Consolidated Industries in 1968, and
subsequently became part of the Electrolux Group in 1986. Today, Kelvinator
continues to offer an assortment of household appliances.
A Brief History of Domestic Air Conditioning Mechanical refrigeration was developed in the first half of the
19th century and was often employed to manufacture ice as an alternative
to natural ice harvested from frozen lakes and rivers. Refrigeration machinery
was bulky and expensive, limiting its use initially to commercial applications.
The first domestic application of mechanical cooling technology was food
refrigeration. Early in-home refrigerators were cooled by blocks of ice
and although mechanically cooled refrigerators were available to homeowners
as early as the 1890s, they did not become widespread until the 1920s
when the technology had become less expensive and more reliable.
It wasn't long before refrigeration equipment was adapted to comfort
cooling, or air conditioning.1 Once again,
early air conditioning systems were expensive and initially were limited
to commercial uses such as factories and food processing plants. These
first air conditioners were primarily water cooled, requiring plumbing
connections and a sewer hookup. Most existing homes of the era also required
additional ducting for air distribution and upgraded electrical service
before air conditioning could be installed. Home air conditioning was
a luxury that few could afford and most people first experienced comfort
cooling in theaters.2
In the late 1920s and early 1930s several companies introduced console-style
room air conditioners followed shortly by window units. The early portable
room air conditioners were built like fine furniture, with wooden cabinets
and decorative grillwork. Room air conditioners were more common than
whole-house systems that were generally too expensive for the average
homeowner to install in an existing home.
After World War II air conditioning became increasingly affordable.
The popularity of whole-house air conditioning allowed new forms of domestic
architecture, unencumbered by the constraints imposed by natural cooling,
primarily shade and ventilation. Post war homes could be low slung ranches
with large expanses of sealed glass. The availability of domestic air
conditioning has even influenced where we choose to live, fueling the
population growth in the warm climates of the south and west.
Author's Note I would like to thank Kenneth W. Rose of the Rockefeller Archive
Center for alerting me to the presence of the Kelvin home in Forest Hill
and Tony Evans of Electrolux for providing Kelvinator's history. To learn
more about the history of air conditioning, please visit the website of
the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers
at ASHRAE.org. Sleeping Soundly on Summer Nights, by Mike Pauken, P.E. (ASHRAE
Journal, May 1999), was the source of much of the information in this article
regarding air conditioning.
1 Stuart W. Cramer
coined the term "air conditioning" in 1906 to describe mechanically
controlling the temperature and humidity of interior air.
2 The first documented theater to be air conditioned
was the New Empire Theatre in Montgomery, Alabama in 1917.