Cunningham Sanitarium_Feedback Drawing
Cunningham Sanitarium_Net Zero Diagram
O. J. Cunningham & Henry H. Timken, Cleveland, Ohio, 1928




Physician O. J. Cunningham from the University of Kansas developed in the 1910s various methods to heal respiratory diseases with a therapy of “abundant oxygen.” He set up pressurized chambers that allowed him to expose his patients to oxygen at a level higher than atmospheric pressure.
The seemingly successful undertaking attracted the interest of Henry H. Timken, who decided to finance a facility to further investigate the new line of therapy entitled “hyperbaric medicine.” Besides capital, Timken brought his own expertise: he was head of Timken Roller Bearing Company that specialized in metal processing for complex machine parts used in railroad cars.

In 1928, the Health Tanks at the Cunningham Sanitarium were erected in Cleveland, Ohio as an extension to an existing hospital. The facility consisted of two cylindrical rooms and, most dominantly, a spherical one, all of which were connected by an airlock. The sphere, measuring 64 ft in diameter and containing five stories of bedrooms, recreational areas and lavatories, was praised by its inventors as the “the first attempt in human history to use this unique steel ball to house people under pressure.” (Hauser, The Health Tanks at the Cunningham Sanitarium, 78) While offering the luxurious equipment of a hotel, the main tank otherwise adapted to the machine-logic of a pressure chamber: like in an industrial gasometer, its spherical shape offered the best ratio of surface to volume to withstand the interior pressure. To guarantee the necessary hermetically sealed envelope, 1/2 in thick steel plates were used for the hull and “insulation was applied on the inside mainly for better endurance against weather and to give it a more homelike appearance.” (Hauser, The Health Tanks at the Cunningham Sanitarium, 78)

The engineers, turned-architects, constructing the Cunningham Tanks ruthlessly challenged the traditional building techniques of their time: they turned architecture into a mediating structure that performed a certain atmospheric function regarding the premises of health and comfort. All parts of the building were arranged to serve what was the heart of the facility: the air-conditioning machine. A complex system, consisting of three compressors, two heating boilers, a 27-ton ammonia compressor for cooling that worked as a dehumidifier and various air filters allowed for a precise control not only of pressure, but also temperature, humidity and exchange rate of the air in the facility. The working mechanism of the whole system was regulated and controlled by thermostats that automatically adjusted the properties of air within the tanks.
To better understand the role of this odd architectural experiment, one must not only see it as a demonstration of strength of a pioneering engineering company, but foremost as the brainchild of an avant-garde medical doctor at the turn of the century. The improvement of human health forms, has been a leitmotif of the modern movement that was reflected within various buildings of that period. Confined within a hermetically sealed interior, the patients were exposed to a therapy of air-conditioning: their respiratory systems became inscribed into a machine for healing that provided healthfully designed air and freed them from the obligation of travel to high altitudes.

Little is known about the success of Cunningham’s therapy in the Health Tanks. Controversies on the effectiveness of hyperbaric medicine continued throughout the century as did the medical usefulness of mountain sanatoriums (Sontag, Illness as Metaphor) From the engineer’s standpoint, one must at least wonder about the conventional radiators that were installed in a building that was literally constructed around a machinery producing a fully controlled environment for its inhabitants. As a matter of fact, the new section of the hospital underwent financial trouble and had to close after just a few years in operation. The Health Tanks were shut down, and, after the site was sold to another owner, the structure was dismantled in 1942 and the scrap steel was sold to the US Army to support war efforts. Eventually, the high-grade steel was recycled and used for tanks and submarines.



THE HEATING DID NOT REALLY WORK: At least not through the air-conditioning machine, which was the heart of the building. Why would they have needed to install conventional radiators then?

THE THERAPY WAS UNREAL: At least, from the standpoint of conventional medicine. No scientific evidence can be found that
the “therapy of abundant” oxygen effectively cured the targeted diseases.


Heating Problems: After just a few years in operation, the building was closed and the site on which it stood was resold a few times. Ultimately, the building was torn down and the resulting scrap metal was sold to support war efforts in 1942.