Construction History: Summer In The City

I’ve used the picture above before, in discussing the Gillender Buidling, the remarkably slender skyscraper in the middle of the frame. But there’s a detail there that gives a window into the past and perhaps makes a point about the future: the window canopies. Not only are there canopies on the older low-rise office buildings, there are canopies on the very new, very modern Gillender and (behind it) American Surety buildings.

New York’s summers can be brutal. Hot and humid, with waves of stifling temperatures up to a week long punctuated by thunderstorms. Having lived through several summers here without air-conditioning, I’m amazed that anything got done in Julys and Augusts past. There are, of course, ways to mitigate the heat, and putting a canopy over a window, to block sunlight when the window is open, is among the easiest to implement. Canopy use faded after 1900 but didn’t disappear completely until mechanical ventilation really took over.

The canopies are simply canvas on a retractable metal frame, operated by a person from each window. In other words, very low tech. You will occasionally hear calls that designs for tall buildings should go back to having operable windows; the use of similar simple canopies might not be a bad idea either.

I wanted some comparisons, so I’m going to use photos of Broad Street from 1900-1915 or so. Here’s one with some of the buildings labelled:

A is Federal Hall
B is the New York Stock Exchange
C is the Gillender Building
D is the Hanover Bank
E is J. P. Morgan and
F is the Broad Exchange Building.

In the picture above, note that (a) you don’t see canopies on the Gillender or Hanover buildings and (b) the men in the street – curb brokers before the curb exchange was formalized into the American Stock Exchange – are not dressed for the summer. What does summer look like?

In terms of the men, straw hats. In terms of the buildings, canopies on Hanover, and on Bankers Trust (which was built on the Gillender site).

The next view demonstrating an important point: the canopies were folded back when the sun wasn’t shining into the windows because they did, slightly, impede air flow. So when the sun started into your window, you’d crank they canopy out, and then crank it back in when the sun had moved on.

Note the furled canopies on the building to the right of the Broad Exchange (with United Cigars), in the shade. Gillender and Hanover have some canopies open and some furled. The water in the street suggests that it may have been raining not long before the photo was taken. Here’s another view of that small building to the right of Broad Exchange, again with the canopies furled:

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