Meet me at the Fair

Published: March 16, 2017 - by Dan Holohan

Categories: History Lesson, The Business of Heating

American Radiator house

The song, Meet me in St. Louis, Louis, arrived in 1904, the same year that the World's Fair opened in that city. The fair sprawled over 1,270 acres, and 63 countries showed their stuff, as did many manufacturers. One of those was the American Radiator Company, and they did something very special.

            The fair opened on April 30 that year and lasted only seven months. During that time, 19,694,855 people visited. Many of them spent time in the Palace of Manufactures Building and ogled the two-story house with basement that the American Radiator Company had built inside that huge building. They had commissioned Chicago's Prairie Style architect, Hugh Garden, to come up with a house that would cost no more than $5,000 to build. That September, Engineer Review magazine reported it as "An Ideal American Exhibit," which was a play on words since American Radiator used the name Ideal for their boiler line.

            The house had no front. There was a lovely staircase to the second floor, where there was a bathroom and a bedroom. The first floor had the entryway and a sitting area to each side, one with a fireplace. There was also a sunroom. All the rooms had radiators. One also had an indirect radiator, which was inside galvanized steel ductwork in the basement. This took its air supply from outside and allowed for fresh, warm air. That was a new idea at the time and the visitors couldn't get enough of it.

            "It is true that no exhibit at this fair presenting to home builders and home lovers is more instructive and more interesting, more practical and more helpful than the 'Modern Colonial Home," Engineer Review reported.

            The house was landscaped in iron. Two Ideal boilers sat side-by-side at the head of the walkway leading to the house. There was a piped archway of thick, hot-water pipes over the walkway. The fence surrounding the house was made of continuous cast-iron radiators. On what would be the lawn there were boilers and water heaters, each lighted for artistic effect.

            "A person unacquainted with these methods," Engineer Review continued, "might enter this exhibit filled with thoughts which portray steam- or water-heating outfits as compound, complex, difficult, abstruse 'systems' or 'complicated plants' - and leave it with an idea of their wonderful simplicity - and in these days of complicated mechanisms, things which are truly simple may be classified as wonderful."

            So this is 1904. The fair is to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. Teddy Roosevelt is president. Henry Ford just set the automotive land speed record (91.37 mph). U.S. Army engineers begin work on what is to be the Panama Canal. Cy Young throws the first perfect game in the modern history of baseball, and the third Modern Olympics Games opens. It takes place at the St. Louis World's Fair.

            This fair is a big whooping deal.

            Millions of people are looking at those radiators and that hot-water boiler. The American Radiator Company doesn't hand out any printed material because they know people don't want to carry papers all day. This is the fair that will popularize ice-cream cones, hot dogs, hamburgers and cotton candy. American Radiator instead asks people for their name and address and they follow-up by mailing them a full-color booklet they call Radiation and Decoration. It shows radiators as artwork and it launches modern hydronic heating. Listen to what they had to say in that wonderful booklet.

            About their plain Rococo window radiator:

            "The housewife also appreciates how easy such radiating surfaces are dusted, there being no projections on which dust may lodge. In bathroom, nursery, kitchen or similar room where thorough cleanliness is essential, the radiators may be washed or scrubbed perfectly clean."

            It doesn't just warm you; it also keeps you healthy because it will be easy to clean. Do you talk about the health benefits of hydronics to customers? American Radiator did.

            About their more-decorative radiators:
            "If at any time a radiator has appeared to be an intrusion or conspicuous in a room, the blame rests with the architect or the decorator. There is so large an assortment of patterns, shapes, sizes, etc. that it is simply a matter of right choosing. There are many ways in which the radiator may be decorated and redecorated that is it simply a matter of exhibiting taste,  judgment."

            The booklet is in full color because they have painted the radiators in their Modern Colonial House to blend with or compliment the wallpaper in each room. Their decorative Verona radiators ("It is a work of art in iron.") have raised iron filigrees. They explain in the booklet that if the homeowner wants the filigrees to be a separate color, all he or she has to do is first paint the entire radiator the desired color for the filigrees. Next, paint over this with the color he or she wants for the rest of the radiator. Finally, wait until that second coat is tacky to the touch, and then use a clean cloth to rub the tacky paint from the raised surfaces of the filigrees. That's it, a gorgeous radiator that compliments the wallpaper and shows the owner's good taste.

            "Every year records a larger number of cottage homes whose owners find that the purchase of steam- and water-warming apparatus is a good investment of principal, as well as an economical means for insuring the health, comfort and cleanliness of the home and thus extending the opportunities for domestic tranquility."

            So you're talking heating to a potential customer. You ever mention all of this stuff? You ever mention domestic tranquility?

            Okay, I'll give you that one. Domestic tranquility is a bit 1904, but the rest still works, don't you think? I mean who doesn't want to be healthy, clean and comfortable?

            The World's Fair closed on December 1 that year but that was not the end of the Modern Colonial House. American Radiator sold it at auction. The owner moved it by rail to Webster Groves, Missouri. The owner had an extension built on the front of the house to enclose the cutaway and accommodate a new kitchen.  He had the leaded-glass windows and most of the woodwork reinstalled.  They finished the exterior in stucco.

            The house is still there on tree-lined Kenilworth Place, number 144. I wonder if the folks who live there now know its rich history and how once upon a time in America millions of people visited their house and marveled at the beauty and the simplicity of its hydronic-heating system.  That house was the World's Fair of Hydronic Heating, praised in engineering- and home-builder magazines. I it was a marvel of creature comfort and healthy living, a wonder to behold.

            Gosh.

            You can see the house on Google Maps Street View. It continues to look much loved, and I wondered if those gorgeous radiators were still providing domestic tranquility to some fortunate modern American family, so I went on Zillow.com.

            Guess what.

            The place now has a gas-fired furnace.

            And that makes me want to scream.

            How about you?

streetview