By Zoe Watnik
The reports prepared by the Columbia students are crucial tools that will help us shape the interpretation of the Lewis H. Latimer House in Flushing, Queens. While some students opted to examine the minutia of the physical space, others focused on larger spaces within the house. Tianchi Young took on the task of examining the front parlor. Using historic photographs taken during Lewis Latimer’s occupation (1903-1928) to analyze the condition of the room, she identified areas that can serve as focal points for interpreting Latimer’s life.
Working from the history of the house, outlined in the official Landmarks Preservation Commission Report, and two photos taken by the Latimers of the parlor, Young investigated the style and placement of furnishings, architectural features (like moldings), and potential uses of the space. As we know, Lewis’ granddaughter Louise converted this parlor into her studio and personal living space during the time that she rented out the second floor to boarders. [link] The historic photographs help us understand what the space looked like and how it was used prior to these changes.
The first photo captures Lewis’ wife Mary Wilson Latimer in a personal moment as she sits in a rocking chair in the front parlor reading a newspaper. We can see her sitting in front of the window, with her shadow cast northwest in the morning light, confirming the southeast facing orientation of the house on Holly Avenue (prior to the physical relocation in 1994 to Leavitt Field). The window seat is filled with pillows and a rumpled blanket. The family decorated the walls with framed photographs and a calendar. To the right is a piano with a music book, which tells us a little more about Lewis Latimer as a renaissance man: inventor, musician, poet, artist, activist, community leader. Everything about the area speaks to an informal use of the space, comfort, and closeness of a family in their private home.
The other photograph portrays the front parlor, (and was shot from the back parlor). From here, was can see more furniture, including a round table with books and a kerosene lamp. The rocking chair can be seen again, with a back and seat cushion. Over the mantle, the family has positioned more photographs, a mirror, and other personal objects.
Young concluded that the front parlor was a private space for the family, and that is was frequently used by the female family members. The furnishings, especially the presence of cushions and blankets, prioritize comfort. Haphazard placement of books on the small table indicates that they were used with some frequency. Despite the fact that Latimer was instrumental in the development of electric lighting, the family used kerosene in their home. We know that the Latimers hosted African-American cultural and political leaders, and the parlor may have even served a dual function as a salon-style gathering space for those very special guests.
Beyond the use and furnishing of the rooms, Young used the photographs as instrumental tools for analyzing the change to the physical spaces. The floor on the first floor of the house has a number of cuts and infills with later wood. [link] The cuts seem to indicate shifts in the arrangement and positioning of the walls and doors in the rooms. (As mentioned in a previous post, Banerjee and Stone’s wood framing assessment identified the cuts, and indicated major structural change, including the removal of the central fireplace. The presence of additional cuts might be the result of Louise’s conversion of the parlor.)
Young also identified changes to the walls. The decorative moldings and baseboards have been removed and replaced with other simplified ornamentation of a different wood stain. The placement of the window along the north wall was once much closer to the eastern wall. Additionally, at one point, the walls had a decorative band near the ceiling, either painted or wallpaper. We already know that the Latimers were an artistic family; this ornamentation could have been their own modification to the parlor.
The research Young has performed with the historic photographs has helped us understand more fully the use and reuse of the parlor spaces. Any narrative we develop at the house can now speak to the strong female presence in the front parlor and the public function of the back parlor. We have further evidence of the skills of this highly creative family, though the presence of the piano and the possibility of painted decorations. Despite the changes that have taken place to the physical spaces, Young’s research allows us to go beyond Lewis himself to understand the life of the entire Latimer family.
Our next post will address Lewis Latimer’s personal “laboratory” addition he built on the rear of the house. Although this studio was lost, the Columbia students look at other inventors of the period and written reflections by Lewis’ grandchildren on what it was like to visit the lab. We get a bit of insight into the mind of this genius through his personal enclave within his home.