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article imageLimair Sanitarium — The result of an obsession with lime air

By Karen Graham     Dec 28, 2017 in Technology
Luray - Luray Caverns, in Virginia's Page County, has drawn hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world since its discovery in 1878. But few people know about the first air-conditioned building in the U.S. built in 1901 at Luray.
Virginia's Luray Caverns are about 90 miles west of Washington, DC, just off the junction of Routes US 340 and US 211. They were discovered on August 13, 1878, by five local men attracted by a protruding limestone outcrop and a nearby sinkhole that had cool air that flowed from below.
Just a few hours of digging produced a hole large enough for the two smallest men to go down a rope and discover what lay below. The explorers were amazed by the enormous stalactites and stalagmites and other formations, including an underground lake, known today as Dream Lake.
But enough about the caverns, which all by themselves are a fantastic day trip for most people. At one time, about the turn of the century, a heating and ventilation engineer with 20-years experience by the name of T.C. Northcott constructed what could be described as the first-ever air-conditioned building in the United States.
Luray Caverns
Luray Caverns
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The construction of Limair Sanitarium
Colonel Northcott devoted many years to figuring out how to construct an institution that would combine the advantages of sunlight and beautiful surroundings with an air supply at once voluminous and pure for those suffering from respiratory problems. You could say he was as innovative as any techie we have today.
Northcott had already investigated caves in New York and Ohio before he came upon the caverns in Luray. He got the appropriate building and park permits over the caverns at the summit of "Cave Hill," a site that featured the greatest number of aesthetic and healthful features.
The Colonel finished construction of the 5,000-square-foot plantation-style facility in late 1901, and in 1905, leaped at the chance of buying the property, establishing the Luray Caverns Corporation, which still holds the property to this day.
Showing Flag beneath the Ceiling carried out Horizontally by the Inflow of Cavern Air. Also the flam...
Showing Flag beneath the Ceiling carried out Horizontally by the Inflow of Cavern Air. Also the flame of the candle deflected by the outflow of air from the bedroom.
And yes, the Corporation did turn the investment into the third most visited show cave in the U.S., with a 400,000 visitor-per-year tourist attraction, but Northcott was motivated by something else. You see, Northcott really was interested in the air coming from the caverns.
Atlas Obscura talked with Bill Huffman, Luray's resident historian recently. He said that in 1901, the caverns had been open to visitors for almost 22 years, and mismanagement had plagued the owners, leaving them in financial distress. When Northcott came along, he found it easy to get the necessary permits to built.
Huffman went on to say the construction of Limair was accomplished by "drilling into the caverns to access 'lime air' that Northcott believed had been disinfected by passing through miles of limestone chambers. Otherwise, it probably wouldn’t have happened."
The drawing (Fig. 1) explains the methods of air supply and ventilation  but only a visit to the ins...
The drawing (Fig. 1) explains the methods of air supply and ventilation, but only a visit to the institution will demonstrate how completely the theories of the engineer are being worked out in practical results.
Popular Science Monthly
Northcott drilled straight down through Cave Hill and 60 feet of rock into the ceiling of a prominent chamber now known as Morrison’s Hall. He then installed a five-foot diameter ventilation shaft, connecting it to the basement of the Limair Sanitarium.
Equipped with a fan powered by a 5.0 horsepower steam engine, the system allowed Northcott to pump cave air through the sanitarium 24-hours a day.
“Not only that, he engineered the building so that the system would completely replace every molecule of air in the building every five minutes on the dot,” says Luray Caverns facilities engineer Chad Painter.
Huffman says the whole idea behind the unique air-conditioning system was to allow "people to live here almost as if they weren’t sick." What with the beautiful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains—the Massanutten Range to the west and, to the east, what is now Shenandoah National Park, plus the excellent meals served to the residents, it was all worthwhile.
Limair Sanitarium  Luray  Virginia. Notice the absence of roofed verandas. Large sun rooms occupy th...
Limair Sanitarium, Luray, Virginia. Notice the absence of roofed verandas. Large sun rooms occupy the south side of the sanitarium. Massanutten Mountains just visible in the distance.
Popular Science Monthly
Limair draws the interest of Dr. Guy Hunner
Dr. Guy L. Hunner was a prominent surgeon at the John Hopkins University Medical School. Hunner first visited Northcott’s Limair Sanitarium while vacationing in the Shenandoah Valley in 1901.
Dr. Hunner wrote THE AIR OF THE LURAY CAVERNS published in Popular Science Monthly in 1904, writing: "At my first visit, in the fall of 1901, I saw demonstrated the remarkable volume in which the air enters and leaves each room without creating appreciable draughts and the fact that the air is practically free from atmospheric dust."
Northcott believed that, like water passing into an aquifer, the cave air had been cleansed by a process of natural filtration. “He claimed the air was purified as it was drawn into the caverns through the rocks and porous soil, sanitized by the limestone, and ‘finished’ as it floated over underground cavern roofs and pools,” explains Huffman. “He talked about the air as if it were a mix between holy water and fine wine.”
And while it may seem fanciful, at best, Dr, Hunner was convinced, in the end, of the miraculous properties of the lime air at Limair Sanitarium. The good doctor even conducted bacteriological testing. He tested each room in the facility, with the most contaminated plate yielding a mere nine colonies total, and that was after a rather large party the night before the testing.
The Luray Valley in Page County  Virginia.
The Luray Valley in Page County, Virginia.
Luray Caverns
"The home of a nearby farmer showed 143 colonies, and a local physician’s office showed 92. By means of comparison, Hunner tested the air in the John Hopkins gynecologic operating room and found 65 colonies. The ambient air outside his home in Washington D.C., meanwhile, tested at over 450," according to the report by Dr. Hunner.
While Dr. Hunner may have been converted to the idea of pure clean air being good for victims of respiratory diseases, his paper didn't move others in the medical profession. But Limair managed to carry on in the beautiful hills of Virginia until it burned down in April of 1940.
The building was rebuilt, but as a brick edifice that is now a meeting and reception hall, but it still has its unique air-conditioning system, thanks to Colonel Northcott.
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