A Home’s History: Part VI

This is the sixth post in a series exploring the Fall 2013 material investigations of the Lewis H. Latimer House by graduate students in the Columbia University Historic Preservation Program.   By Zoe Watnik This final class project allows us to discuss Lewis Latimer’s specific role as an inventor in his own home. Alyssa Grieco and Beata Sasińska tackled one of the more complicated issues in historic preservation (and my own area of research) – how does one analyze missing or demolished spaces, and when, if ever, is it appropriate to consider reconstructing features for interpretive value?

Boarded up rear of the house in 1994, after building relocated and addition demolished

Boarded up rear of the house in 1994, after building relocated and addition demolished

  At some point after moving to Flushing in 1902 Lewis Latimer built a one-story addition at the rear northwestern corner of the house. This wraparound addition included a passageway from the main house to the space Lewis used as his personal studio. His late granddaughter, Winifred Norman, recalled that the room “contained Latimer’s books, drafting instruments, a drafting table, and a chamber organ.” When the house was relocated in 1994, the addition was demolished. Relying on descriptions of the space, historic photographs, comparable studios of inventors, and other ancillary materials, Grieco and Sasińska researched how the space could have been used. They broke down the function of a private study space for an inventor (without falling prey the stereotypical characterization of a mad scientist’s lab). Since we know that Lewis was an accomplished musician, man of letters, and community organizer, this interpretation of the studio posits potential uses in keeping with the anecdotes we have of the man.

Latimer House and the studio addition (photo taken sometime between 1902 & 1912)

Latimer House and the studio addition (photo taken sometime between 1902 & 1912)

First, the team studied Latimer’s patents. As an inventor, they surmised that he must have been working at home. They zeroed in on patents filed while he was living in Flushing, omitting those that was filed during his time working in Edison’s laboratory in NJ. During this time only one patent was filed independently, in 1902, for a mechanism to support books on a shelf. This sliding support device allowed books to be removed from an ordinary bookcase without causing the other books to fall over. The book support gives us a sense of Lewis’ personality – working backwards from the patent, he comes across as someone fixated on the minutia of his personal space, and (understandably) frustrated by sliding books falling off his shelves. Latimer and William Sheil Norton filed a joint patent in 1910 for a shock absorbing light fixture. The device protected fragile lamp filaments, shifting the burden of shock absorption from the lamp itself to the mounted fixture. Both of these patents are for domestic objects.

Book support patent

Book support patent

Next, Grieco and Sasińska investigated other home laboratories of inventors from the turn of the century to begin developing a basic furnishing plan. They started by breaking down Lewis’ granddaughter Winifred’s quote about the room. She mentioned specifically that he had books and a chamber organ; therefore, we know that the addition was not strictly a scientific workspace. A drafting table would serve as a multi-use work surface, and Latimer may have also written his poetry in the room. As an example, Thomas Edison, Latimer’s employer for many years, had his own home study space. Although it included scientific equipment the space is furnished more like a library or gentleman’s private chambers. 

Edison in his library/lab

Edison in his library/lab

Based on the team’s conclusions, Latimer’s studio space seems to function as a direct analog to the female-centric front parlor (see earlier post). The room included his own furnishings, with a drafting table, as well as personal effects like the library collection and organ, attesting to his robust artistic abilities. The studio, set off from the rest of the house, would have provided Lewis with a respite from his family, a place to work on personal projects, and even a space to host visitors.

Edison in his library/lab (circa 1906)

Edison in his library/lab (circa 1906)

In the context of a more traditional historic house, we might use Grieco and Sasińska’s research to initiate a discussion about reconstructing the laboratory. On the surface, it makes sense that in the historic home of an inventor visitors would expect to see the laboratory where this man of genius worked. At the Latimer house, we are challenged by lack of funding and the crucial question of authenticity. Would reconstructing the studio and furnishing it according to Winifred’s description really help visitors engage with the themes of innovation, artistic creation, and community engagement we have identified as central to the lives of the entire Latimer family? Come back next week for this series’ concluding post. I will discuss the implications of the five student projects for future Anarchist Guide programming at the house. One of our central tenets of the project is to explore the potential of our historic properties and reinvent the way we engage with sites. The storied history of the house and the Latimer family are perfect for branching out to new methods of community interaction.

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