SAH Blog

Charnley-Persky House Has a New Boiler

SAH News
| Oct 09, 2019

HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning) is not always the most glamorous house topic but is critical to the functioning and comfort of any building. The Charnley-Persky House, which serves as the headquarters of the Society of Architectural Historians, was in desperate need of a new boiler to replace the aging and deficient boiler installed in 1987. During last winter’s Polar Vortex, the old boiler barely kept the house at 55 degrees, a dangerously low temperature that had the potential to quickly result in frozen or burst pipes, should the furnace fail. The 2017 Conservation Management Plan, funded by the Alphawood Foundation and completed by Harboe Architects, recommended the boiler replacement as a near-term priority project.

The old defunct boiler, installed in 1987.

If you are familiar with the house, the boiler room is in the north end of the basement and powers the many hot-water radiators located on four levels. The house’s original boiler was powered by coal, and the boiler room is situated directly across from one of two storage vaults, located beneath the sidewalk in front of the house. Two manhole covers allowed access for coal delivery. A feature seen in Charnley-Persky House (also seen in Wright’s early bootleg houses) are radiators cleverly concealed within the walls, under window benches, and suspended beneath the floor, with brass grates to allow airflow. Along with the house’s six fireplaces, the radiant heat was a major factor in facilitating the beginnings of an open floor plan seen in the house. The coal burning fireplaces are no longer in use, but much of the original hot-water heating system from 1892 is still intact and functioning.

Due to the Charnley-Persky House’s 6,500-square-foot size and configuration, it was determined that the house needed not one, but two boilers for the heating system to function during extreme weather events and to safeguard the house from potential damage. Funds to replace the boiler came from generous contributions from Charnley-Persky House Board Members Cynthia Weese and Laurie Petersen, and donors to the November 2018 Giving Tuesday campaign. In addition, SAH staff hosted an open house and yard sale at CPH on July 27 that raised funds to support the project.

Mark Nussbaum, Principal of Architectural Consulting Engineers, Oak Park, Illinois, which specializes in preservation and restoration of historic properties, assisted SAH in oversight of the project, ensuring that the work followed conservation guidelines, preserving the integrity of the house. 

Y-tech Heating & Air Conditioning, based in Park Ridge, Illinois, began installation on the boilers on August 21 and took approximately three weeks. During that time, the crew disassembled the old boiler, removed it from the house, disconnected fuel lines and venting, and set about installing the new boilers. To accommodate intake and exhaust, the crew drilled four holes through four courses of brick on the east exterior wall of the building.

The two-man crew from Y-tech Heating & Air Conditioning work on the installation of the new boiler system.

Holes were drilled to accommodate intake and exhaust. The four courses of brick are so dense that it took one man an entire day to drill four holes. 


The previous boiler was massive and took up most of the space in the boiler room. The two new boilers are affixed to the wall and are surrounded by a virtual forest of copper supporting piping, pumps, a water descaler, water tank, and pressure gauges. The system integrates with the house’s 19th-century circulating hot water heating system, and the two boilers work alternately, in rotation, so they both get equal wear.

SAH is grateful to every friend of Charnley-Persky House for their donations to support the boiler project. Updating the mechanical systems in the house serves the larger goal of stewardship of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright’s joint creation that SAH is privileged to call “home.”

new boilers 01
The new boiler system at Charnley-Persky House integrates with the 19th-century circulating hot water heating system.

copper pipes

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SAH thanks The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation
for its operating support.
Society of Architectural Historians
1365 N. Astor Street
Chicago, Illinois 60610