Historic artesian well underneath ASH provided cool water for the world’s first air conditioned university


Mallory Bart

The Arts and Sciences Hall (ASH) was constructed after the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) outgrew the former campus on 24th and Pratt streets, but students were more excited about the building becoming the world’s first air-conditioned university to have the temperature control measure installed.

ASH was a major upgrade to Omaha University’s former campus, which consisted of three small buildings, some of which were so crowded they couldn’t employ enough janitors to keep the buildings clean.

Les Valentine, an archivist at UNO, said the building was an incredible increase in facilities for students.

“It’s hard to talk about the Arts and Sciences Hall without talking about what things were before,” Valentine said. “If you read a little bit and do a little bit of research on what the campus was like before, and look at what the building was in 1938, you can understand those students were excited.”

ASH’s arguably one of the most iconic buildings on UNO’s campus because of its distinctive Georgian architecture style.

“I thought wow, y’know, we went from this place that served the university well and did what it could, to this new campus,” Valentine said. “It was like woah, look at us. We’re somebody. We’re OU. It really sparked pride. Students enjoyed themselves more in that campus.”

According to an article from The Gateway in November 1945, many students chose to attend the University of Omaha solely because of the comfortable temperatures during both summer and winter.

There was a rumor circulating campus about the existence of a natural cave underneath the ASH but the building was actually cooled by water stored deep underground.

The area where ASH is located on 60th and Dodge was chosen by G. H. Payne because of a historical artesian well on the property. Payne campaigned for the use of geothermal resources, namely water, to cool the building during the hot summer months.

The building was designed with the proposed air conditioning system in mind, which included air shafts underneath the building for air circulation and a cupola on top of the building for air intake.

The cupola, the white tower on top of ASH, was the main air intake for the air conditioning system. The air came in through the cupola, down air shafts where it was filtered, washed, cooled, and humidified. Access panels allow maintenance workers to climb underneath the cupola to access mechanical equipment.

Dave Meradith, Chief Engineer at UNO, says the cupola played an important role in keeping the building cool.

The cupola is part of the system as far as that’s where your relief air left building or does leave the building,” Meradith said.

The air then traveled through large tunnels under the first-floor halls, eventually leading to classrooms and offices. The air was circulated out of the rooms through upper and lower grates in each room.

Although the air conditioning system was revolutionary in 1938, the cupola acted as a large vacuum for the building and if doors or windows were left open the system would not work properly.

The artesian wells provided the water that cooled the air. The water was directly piped to cisterns, which are large storage tanks buried underground. The water was naturally cold because it was located deep underground and would become warm after removing heat from the air.

The warm water was transferred to a separate storage tank and transferred to an irrigation system that watered grass and plants outside the building.

The artesian wells also airconditioned other buildings on campus, including the Eppley Administration Building and the Sapp Field House.

One artesian well is directly north of ASH and another is near Kayser Hall. The third well is hiding in plain sight between ASH and the Eppley Administration Building, right off of the sidewalk.

“I mean, where else could a well be?” It’s in a perfect location, it’s between the two structures,” Valentine said. “It’s been there as long as I can imagine it being there. I don’t really want to climb down in there and see.”

Many renovations have occurred since the building opened because it was originally designed for an entirely different air conditioning system than the one used today. The next planned renovation will happen in May 2019.

As far as the rest of the building, most is infrastructure so there will be new air conditioning systems that will be put in, the piping will be changed, all of the restrooms will be remodeled,” Meradith said.