Architecture! Designing for Health in the Early 20th Century

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Rapid population growth and industrialization at the turn of the 20th century meant many Clevelanders faced a variety of health concerns associated with urban living. With large numbers of the city’s workers employed in factories, industrial accidents and occupational hazards from chronic exposure to toxic substances like lead or mercury increased at alarming rates. In recognition of these workplace dangers, many local factory owners implemented safety protocols (like not eating lunch at your lead smelting station), mandated medical check-ups, and redesigned workplaces to facilitate airflow and increase light to reduce industrial.

The Willard Storage Battery Company received accolades from public health researchers who considered its functional architecture — a series of long buildings to increase the number of windows in each workspace — a successful way to eliminate hazardous materials while limiting the numbers of employees exposed to dangerous lead-processing areas. Although images of the factory from 1923 may trouble modern sensitivities regarding OSHA requirements, these architectural details assisted in decreasing negative health events, while improving worker retention, and productivity.

The starting and lighting battery

The architectural design of the Willard Storage Battery improved airflow, available light, and reduced exposure to occupational hazards. 1923.

lead smelter

Lead smelters in the Willard Storage Battery Co. of Cleveland, OH. 1923.

Hospitals also adopted architectural features thought to promote health and limit disease spread. In keeping with conventional wisdom of the benefits of fresh air, Lakeside Hospital featured both public verandas facing the lake for charity patients and private solariums for paying patients. While domestic touches adorned private rooms, architects designed operating rooms and clinical spaces for utilitarian purposes — namely, maintaining a well-lit, aseptic environment.

These hygienic architectural details became available consumer products for middle class Clevelanders seeking to make their homes both modern and sanitary. Through an integration of public health findings with design, the much local architecture reflects historic attempts to reduce illness and improve wellbeing.

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