By Zoe Watnik
This is the first post in a series exploring material investigations of the Lewis H. Latimer House by graduate students in the Columbia University Historic Preservation Program in the fall semester of 2013.
A core component of interpreting the Lewis H. Latimer House is understanding the historic material of the site. Before we can dive into our innovative projects, the HHT and those working on the Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums teamed up with the Columbia University Historic Preservation Program for the hands-on “Looking for Latimer” Conservation Workshop Seminar.
It’s not unusual to see changes to the fabric of a house over time. Think about your own home and modifications that have been made: repainting, installing shelving, rebuilding the kitchen, and so on. At the Latimer House we see a high degree of change to the structure as the property changed ownership throughout its history. The Columbia students have helped us to understand where and how these changes have taken place.
Five teams of graduate students conducted on-site investigations led by Professors Mary Jablonski and Helen Thomas of Jablonski Building Conservation Inc. The two conservators have years of professional experience, and their client base ranges from cultural institutions and religious properties to consulting for individual architects, engineers, and private homeowners.
Jablonski and Thomas tasked the students with identifying material original to Lewis Latimer’s occupation of the house and with developing a more comprehensive understanding of the physical changes that have taken place at the site over time.
The Queen Anne style house was built between 1887 and 1889 for Emma and William Sexton, on Holly Avenue, just to the west of Kissena Boulevard in Queens. Emma and William sold the house to Lewis in 1902. Within a few years of acquiring the house, Lewis designed a personal studio/laboratory at the rear northwest corner of the house. Lewis prepared the axonometric drawings of the studio himself, which currently are housed in the Queens Public Library.
After Latimer’s death, his daughters continued to maintain the house. In the decades following, Louise, an artist herself, lived on the first floor and rented the remaining space out to students. She enclosed the porch and created a studio space by removing the wall of the front parlor.
The house passed to Lewis’ granddaughter Dr. Winifred L. Norman in 1963, who in turn sold it to the neighboring Nuccio family. The Nuccio’s sold the house to the Seltzers, who modernized the first floor. By 1988, the house was in the hands of a developer who was planning to raze the property and build a new development. As a result, the Committee to Save the Latimer House was formed with the intent to physically relocate the house to a new space.
Led by Reverend Timothy Mitchell and Dr. Norman, the committee raised the necessary funds and secured space at Leavitt Field for the new permanent location of the house. In 1994, the house was picked up and set on new permanent foundations in the park. At this point, a major restoration project was undertaken to resurface the gables and replace the well. Unfortunately, Latimer’s private studio was lost during the move.
Over the course of several site visits, the Columbia students did everything in their power to investigate the site, from measuring and sketching the moldings to crawling under the foundations to researching archives of historic photographs, all to provide everyone at the Historic House Trust a more comprehensive understanding of the site.
In part II we’ll break down the comparative study of the window casings and baseboards in the house to understand when and why the house was modified.