The common narrative is that Phoenix's spectacular growth was made possible by air conditioning. But that's only partly true.
Some of the hottest places in America were big cities in 1930, when air-conditioning units were large and expensive, confined to the largest buildings with money to spend. Among them were New Orleans (458,762), Dallas (269,475) Houston (292,352), and Atlanta (270,366). These cities suffered not only very hot, but also humid, summers. Phoenix, by contrast, had a population of only a little more than 48,000 that year. Even El Paso, the city that Phoenix leaders aspired to surpass as the business capital of the Southwest, held 102,421 people.
Before the beginning of the great post-war migration to the yet-to-be-named Sunbelt, the Intermountain West was lightly populated and a magical place unknown to most Americans outside of movies. The entire state of Arizona had a population of fewer than 436,000. The Intermountain West population was about 3.7 million out of a total U.S. population of 123 million. In other words, those seven states had fewer people than today's metropolitan Phoenix.
The great impediment to Phoenix's growth was not as much heat — note the cities above — as isolation. Cut off from the east and north by nearly impenetrable mountains, and from the west by forbidding desert, Phoenix was far from natural routes of commerce or travel. This began to change as branch lines of the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads reached the emerging agricultural empire of the Salt River Valley in the late 19th century (the railroads' main lines had been built through northern and southern Arizona). This changed dramatically with the completion of SP northern main line through the city in 1926. Along with new highways, this forever broke through Phoenix's seclusion.
Big commercial air conditioning made its debut here with the opening of the Hotel Westward Ho in 1929. The Fox Theater boasted the first "air cooled" movie palace in 1931, the same year air air conditioning came to the Luhrs Building. Over the next several years, it spread to more hotels, theaters, department stores, and restaurants. The technology had been invented in 1902 by Willis Carrier in Buffalo.
But cooling houses or small businesses was another matter, made impossible on a mass scale because of cost and the size of the machinery. This began to change with the introduction of evaporative coolers, which became widespread by the early 1940s. Although they were less effective when the monsoon season raised humidity, they represented a sea-change in comfort. They also provided a homegrown manufacturing industry. The Goettl brothers, Adam, John and Bill, operated a sheet-metal company in Phoenix's Warehouse District in the late 1930s, when they began tinkering with evaporative coolers. They enhanced the technology, pioneering many breakthroughs and holding 100 patents, and began selling the units widely in the Valley.
Another major manufacturer in a place not known for its factories was the Palmer Co. In addition to residential units, Palmer made the "Sno-Breeze" which brought central air conditioning to the city-county building. Polaraire Cooler, Wright Manufacturing, Mountainaire Manufacturing, and International Manufacturing were the other big evaporative cooling makers made in the city, along with smaller firms. Phoenix's air-conditioning "ecosystem," as economists would call it today, shipped its products across the nation by rail.
After World War II, not only did evaporative cooling spread — to 90 percent of Phoenix homes by 1951 — but technology emerged to make affordable central air conditioning for houses, as well as window units, both mechanical cooled. Even so, evaporative coolers remained popular, even among the large production builders. Goettl furnished 40,000 of them for Del Webb's original Sun City and you can see one prominently on top of this Hallcraft house in 1961. Until third grade, I lived in a house in the 700 block of west Culver Street with an evap, before moving to a home with central air in the 300 block of Cypress Street. Even today, many Phoenicians swear by their evaporative coolers.
As Phoenix grew fast, with houses and buildings stamped out from national on-the-shelf designs, shade trees sharply reduced by street widening and clearcutting the canals (and outright vandalism), and pavement replacing citrus groves and farms, much of the natural cooling mechanism of the Valley was lost. The art of awnings was lost in most architecture. A good part of today's dramatically longer and hotter weather is a consequence of this local warming. But few of Phoenix's 4 million notice because of the highly advanced human-controlled climate — from work to shopping to traffic jams to inside the garage and into the Arizona Room. "HVAC" is more advanced than ever. Few discuss how dangerously vulnerable this bubble is, to accidental or deliberate failures, or to climate change. Or how it creates a feedback loop making climate-change worse.
As with so much (think solar power), Phoenix did not remain as a center of air-conditioning manufacture or even research and design. Goettl is still here, but only as an installation and maintenance firm. The family operates a business focused on the Verde Valley and Prescott. In Phoenix, the Goettl brand is run by something called Phoenix Peach, LLC, a Nevada-based holding company with majority interest held by investor Kenneth Goodrich.
Learn more about Phoenix's history in the Phoenix 101 archives.