The longstanding claim that Vassar’s original heating and gas generation system was the first centralized system in the country, and perhaps, the world, is a widely echoed piece of college lore. “Greening New York’s Campuses,” for example, an online publication of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities (CICU), currently states: “The first central heating plant constructed in America appeared on the campus of Vassar College in 1864. This system is still in place; however, many improvements and modifications over the decades ensure that the plant is operating at a high level of thermal efficiency.” An examination of the assertion, prompted by an email exchange with Ken Massie, the retired manager of utilities services at Gallaudet College, who is writing a book involving such “central plants”—also known as “district heating”—suggests that Vassar’s claim is at best inaccurate and is, in descriptions like CICU’s, simply not true.
Three of the earliest accounts of the college— founding trustee Benson Lossing’s Vassar College and Its Founder (1867), Matthew Vassar’s diary and correspondence, and the description of the new college’s facilities by the pseudonymous correspondent “Diabolus” in The New York Times in June 1866—discuss the design and working of the “Steam and Gas house,” as Lossing calls it. These sources suggest the system is novel, but none specifically says it is ground-breaking or unique.
The earliest version of that claim is probably that in Dutchess County (1937), part of the “American Guide Series” put out by the New York Federal Writers Project: “Back of Main are the buildings classed as the business group, including the laundry, the service building, and the heating plant. This last was the first central heating plant constructed in America“ (p. 59). Marion Bacon ’22 gave the plan a global first in Life at Vassar: 75 Years in Pictures (1940), a publication “in celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of Vassar College and in honor of Henry Noble MacCracken in the twenty-fifth year of his presidency”: “the Boiler and Gas House…furnished all buildings on the campus with both heat and light, Vassar being the first institution in the world to be heated by a central plant in a separate building” (p.11).
In Main to Mudd (1987) and Main to Mudd and More (1996), Elizabeth Daniels adopted this enlarged version, providing a source but also a tacit qualification: “And according to Keene Richards, a twentieth-century general manager of the college, it appears that Vassar was the first institution in the world to be heated from a plant installed in a separate building” (p.12). A footnote cited the 1949 Vassar master’s thesis by Rosalie Thorne McKenna ’40, “A Study of the Architecture of the Main Building and the Landscaping of Vassar College, 1850–1870” (p.49).
McKenna herself made a less expansive and also less than absolute claim in “Vassar Beginnings: Matthew Vassar & Building Main Building,” an essay based on her thesis and published in The Miscellany News for April 29, 1983: “the boilers were placed several hundred feet from the main building—probably the first central heating plant in America” (p. 12). And Daniels’s text in the 1987 application for Main’s designation as a National Historic Landmark is even more circumspect as to the facility’s uniqueness: “In the opinion of Keene Richards, a former general manager of the college, Vassar College was perhaps the first institution in the world to be heated from a plant installed in a separate building” (section 7, p. 2).
District heating—that is, a system for distributing heat generated in a centralized location for residential or commercial heating—may date back to the Romans, according to Dr. Morris Pierce, the historian of energy and university energy manager at the University of Rochester, who also cites a local system in France introduced in the 14th century (and still functioning at the end of the 20th). “Separate boiler plants and underground piping” Pierce continues, “were used by English factories in the 1790s and by 1820 [were] fairly common. Waste heat from factories was used to warm public baths by the 1830s and several proposals were put forward to heat workers’ houses with this same heat supply…. The Crystal Palace in London had district heating in 1851.”
District heating, Pierce suggests, probably began in America, with a system introduced into ten Philadelphia homes in 1749 by Benjamin Franklin, and at least two steam district heating systems were built in the United States in 1853 and one, at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, has been in continuous operation ever since. A General Steam Supply Company was proposed in London in 1859 and a steam supply company was incorporated in Pennsylvania in 1869. Factories and institutions began to centralize their steam boilers on a large scale in the 1870s and many new boiler plants were built.”
It would seem that Keene Richards, who came to Vassar in 1925, was mistaken. McKenna’s source, he was probably that also of the Federal Writers Project’s statement in 1937. The centralized distribution of heat at Vassar (possibly activated in late 1864 to help cure the plaster and mortar in Main Building) began some eleven years later than at Annapolis and at, perhaps, another American institution as well. Other experiments occurred in the early 1870s, but, Morris Pierce concludes: “In spite of these efforts, no one had been able to introduce district heating on a commercial basis until Birdsill Holly, a Lockport, New York, inventor, installed a steam system in that town in 1877.”
Vassar’s central heating was clearly among the first in America, and the sheer size of a system designed to heat Main Building and the Gate Lodge—and, shortly, the Calisthenium and Riding Academy—may have made it, in 1864, the largest. Also, the “Steam and Gas house,” generating both steam and gas, thus distributed both heat and light, an accomplishment celebrated by the early commentators.
“Diabolus” is an example:
A spacious boiler and gas house supplies warmth and light to the entire establishment. This building, whose dimensions are 84 feet by 42, is at a distance of 400 feet from the College edifice, and covers three boilers capable of generating sufficient steam for the cooking and laundry service, and to warm all the rooms in the College, even in the severest weather, by means of over 14 miles of steam-pipe, some of it at a distance of 1,000 feet from its source, and water heated by the same agency is carried into all parts of the College. This building also covers two b[r]anches of gas retorts capable together of making 15,000 feet of gas a day, with the necessary center seal purifiers and meter, and room for storing a large quantity of coal. The amount of coal consumed in all the operations is from 1,400 to 1,500 tons per annum. The whole system of steam, water and gas pipes throughout the establishment, measures over twenty miles.
None of the sources supplied by Mr. Massie nor anything discovered elsewhere suggests an earlier hybrid operation of this sort; in addition, then, to being among the very first, Vassar’s innovative system may well have been unique in this respect.
“Diabolus,” “Commencement at Vassar Female College,” The New York Times, June 26, 1866
Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, ed., The Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar (1916)
Benson Lossing, Vassar College and Its Founder (1867)
Morris Pierce, “Urban Technological Systems Before Edison: Steam Heat and Power in Philadelphia,” https://www.energy.rochester.edu/us/pa/phl/hist.htm
“Historical Foundations of District Heating,” https://www.energy.rochester.edu/dh/histeng.htm