A Home’s History: Part VII – Reflections

This is the seventh 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


Though the students in the Looking for Latimer seminar may have applied traditional historic preservation analysis to the Lewis H. Latimer House, the implementation of their research by the Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums team will be anything but.


They revisited the site the site two decades after its massive relocation and restoration campaign with the goal of uncovering traces of its original fabric. Typically, features like the baseboards and moldings, the historic door latches, and the photographic evidence of objects in the parlor would be used to develop a new restoration plan for the house. Returning the house to an idealized turn of the century state might help to educate visitors about the specifics of the window frames, the door hinges, and the Calvert Vaux-inspired floor plans, but it would also erase the remaining evidence of how the entire Latimer family used their home.


Just because the fabric of the house in some areas does not date to the period of Lewis’ occupation, doesn’t invalidate the authenticity of the structure. Current statistics already prove that a pristine structure will not encourage visitation. This country has more historic houses of note than you could visit in a lifetime; this is our opportunity to develop a more engaging history of the structure and the people who lived there for the community currently surrounding the property.


Our more robust history of the house is now defined by physical evidence for the chronology established in the Historic Structures Report. There are signs of tenant occupation as evidenced by the installation of newer locks on the office and closet doors on the second floor. We can pinpoint moments of change to the house with the baseboards and window moldings, and can even develop a timeline for the transition from the central hearth with a chimney visible in the axonometric drawing to a radiator-based heating system.


Even investigating the now lost studio addition has helped smash stereotypes of the “inventor,” to paint a more comprehensive picture of Lewis. His granddaughter’s reminisces brush aside the notion of the isolate inventor, constantly experimenting in a dedicated laboratory, and instead recast Latimer as a musician, writer, poet, and all around Renaissance man, working and gathering others into his creative studio.


The most engaging elements of the story are those that go beyond the physical structure of the house, and help us understand Latimer and his family in the context of Flushing, Queens. Revealing the way the family actually used their parlor space has already shaped new programming at the house. Drawing on the presence of cushions and comfortable furnishings, we have initiated “Latimer Lounge” events, which are community-oriented cultural evenings with local artists and poets presenting works inspired by Latimer and his legacy of innovation.


Congratulations to all of the Columbia students for their compelling work. With their reports in hand, we can reinvent and illuminate the story of Lewis, his family, and the entire Flushing community!


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