Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Big Old Houses: The Idea Man

The Idea Man
by John Foreman

This is Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931). He had two wives, six chidren and owned 1093 patents, more, if I am correctly informed, than any other human being on the planet. Edison's inventions included a stock ticker, the first motion picture camera, an electric car battery, the quadruplex telegraph (don't ask, but it made him rich), the automatic repeater (ditto), an electric pen, an iron ore separator, Edison Portland Cement, etc., etc., etc., not forgetting the soon-to-vanish-from-our-world-forever incandescent light bulb. What initially brought this tumult of creativity to American public attention was not the light bulb, but the phonograph, a Rube Goldberg concoction of cranks and gears and short-lived waxy cylinders loosed upon the nation in 1877. The debut of the phonograph led newspapers to dub Edison the Wizard of Menlo Park, that being the Jersey suburb in which the great man, then all of thirty years of age, lived and worked.

Of course, what I — and I suspect most people — associate Thomas Edison with are those light bulbs, and the companies that powered them. After a lifetime of writing checks to Consolidated Edison — or ConEd — how could I otherwise? The first durable incandescent bulb of 1879 lasted 13-1/2 hours, which seems about as long as any of them lasted. Their success, coming in the wake of one astonishing invention after another, obscures an important fact. Edison's MO was not to choose a problem (for instance, safe, durable and inexpensive indoor lighting) and wrestle with it until he found a solution. To the contrary, he and his employees, housed in ever larger and more elabrate research laboratories, spent their time cobbling together one gizmo after another. When they got something that worked, no matter how obscurely, then they set about figuring out some way to use it. The concept of the research laboratory, not his many individual inventions, is considered to be Edison's most important contribution to science.
On Christmas Day, 1871, the financially secure (thanks to that stock ticker) 21-year-old master of the Edison Menlo Park industrial laboratory married an employee named Mary Stilwell. She gave him three children, kept out of his Menlo Park buisiness, took care of his Menlo Park house, and died thirteen years later. Creepy historical note: It remains unclear who or what killed Mary Edison — a brain tumor? a surfeit of doctor prescribed morphine? or both.
The 39-year-old father of the American research laboratory made a second stab at marriage in 1886. Mina Miller (1866-1947) was the 20-year-old daughter of sophisticaed people who were among the founders of the famous Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York.
The new Mrs. Edison was educated, "finished," and in a rather different class than her predecessor. Plus which, Edison was now rich and famous. Result: goodbye modest Menlo Park; hello luxuious Llewellyn Park. Opened in 1857 on 425 acres of contrived picturesqueness in West Orange, NJ, landscaped and designed (including the nifty gatehouse in the image below) by Alexander Jackson Davis, businessman/investor Llewellyn Haskell's "country place for city people" set (and still maintains) a high bar for your basic fancy gated community.
How convenient that just at this moment, a "motivated" Llewellyn Park seller put on the market a large house, fully furnnished, on 13.5 garden-like acres at the corner of Park Way and Honeysuckle Road. The place was practiclly new, having been designed in 1880 by a long forgotten architect named Henry Hudson Holly. The client was Henry C. Pedder, long time confidential clerk (whatever that was) of the Arnold Constable Company in New York. Pedder and a small clique of miscreants had been bilking their employer for years, to the tune of hundreds of thousands (today millions) of dollars. Pedder's Llewellyn Park manse, called Glenmont, had cost a cool $200,000 to build, very big bucks in 1880, and all of it stolen. Pedder signed the house over to Constable for $1, and Constable sold it to Edison for $125,000.
At Glenmont, Mina Edison raised her own three children, while her predecessor's brood were trooped off to boarching schools. That's Mina's daughter Madeleine on the left in the image below, then her mother, brother Theodore, brother Charles (a future Secretary of Navy and 42nd governor of New Jersey), and paterfamilias Thomas Alva Edison at far right.
Glenmont is usually described as a high example of American Queen Anne architecture, a style analagous to those particles in quantum physics that don't really exist unless you look at them. Queen Anne houses on this side of the pond were all the rage from about 1880 until the First World War. Most of us of us would probably just call them "Victorian." Certainly they bear little resemblance to one another, and even less to the chaste symmetry of English architecture during the reign of Queen Anne herself (1702-1714). If our Queen Anne houses have anything in common, it is their designers' compulsion to make them as asymmetrically complicated as possible. Mr. Pedder didn't scrimp with Arnold Constable's money, and as a result, his house is suffused with a ponderous General-Grant-ish luxury. Edison later confessed that when he first walked in the door, "I was paralyzed ... (It was) a great deal too nice for me," but quickly added (with signature Victorian male condescension) that it "wasn't half nice enough ... (for) the little wife."
Mina Edison lived in this house for 61 years, 16 years longer than Edison himself. Just as the Lab was his, so the house was hers — quite literaly, as a matter of fact, since he transferred title to her in 1891. It took around ten in staff to run Glenmont — including a butler, cook, head gardener, chauffeur, secetary, maid and houseman — and entertain the likes of Henry Ford, the King of Siam, Helen Keller, Herbert Hoover, etc., etc. Did the Edisons spend winters in chilly New Jersey? That would be a no; they kept a place in Ft. Myers, Florida. Mrs. E maintained Glenmont in "XXX mint" condition, as we say in real estate, until her death in 1947. The National Park Service has done the same since 1959.
I've never quite understood the idea of dying, being buried in one place, then moved someplace else. However, such was the case with the Edisons, who rest today side by side, about a hundred feet west of the house. Interestingly, in 1935 Mina married a second time, to a retired steel exec named Edward Everett Hughes, whom she'd known since childhood summers at Chautauqua. They lived at Glenmont until he died in 1940, after which she went back to being Mrs.Edison.
Glenmont has a competent plan, specifically as regards division between public, family and service areas. Holly's layout provides gracious rooms for entertaining, family areas that assure privacy, and a secondary circulation plan that kept servants out from underfoot. Weak room proportions and missed opportunities for interior drama are obscured by rich woodwork, involved wallcoverings, geometric polychrome ceilings, velvet portieres, complicated lighting fixtures and hefty furniture that looks as if you'd need a crane to move it. Glenmont is meat and potatoes for people with big architectural appetites, a dream of the Victorian paterfamilias. Unfortunately, you may need a jewelers loupe to read the foor plan below. Start-off tip: The front door is on the left [east] side of the plan and opens into the Reception Hall, located between the library and the reception room.
Edith Wharton's and Ogden Codman's famous 1897 book,"The Decoration of Houses," takes merciless aim at houses like Glenmont, defining good interior decor as architectural, as opposed to a "division of dressmaking." Between Edith and Ogden and the modernists, generations would pass before we'd again see beauty in places like this. There's actually a great deal of it in Mr. Edison's library, located immediately to the right inside the front door. For a very little room, there's a very lot to look at too.
Let's leave the library, cross the stair hall, and have a look at the reception room. Tall glass doors on the room's south wall open into an ocean-liner-ish conservatory, alas, now minus the plants.
The Edisons fiddled with Glenmont's interior plan over the years, with notable success upstairs (we'll get there shortly), but less on the main foor. The large drawing room on the southwest corner of the house is filled with terrific old stuff which doesn't, unfortunately, offset its very uncertain proportions.
There actually is a way, via a mini-conservatory, to go directly from the drawing room to the dining room. However, we're returning to the main hall and taking what appears (to me, anyway) to be the intended main entrance. There is a specific shade of "big old house green" that I have seen in many places from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is, in a word, divine, and here it is again. If the color is great, the shape of the room unfortunately is not. It's too long and skinny, and the fireplace is no longer centered on the east wall. This room also appears to have been enlarged, and if so, not very skillfully. If I remember my tour correcty, the room beyond the dining room used to be the conservatory. The Edisons altered it into what they called the den.
A swing door on the west wall of the dining room leads to a blissfully intact vintage service suite — pantry, kitchen, laundry (wih newly restored 'antique' linoleum floor), servants' dining room and back stair.
Glenmont's second floor plan barely looks as though it'll fit on top of floor one. Let's take the main stair up and have a look, starting with the family living room, which was really a shared office for Mr. & Mrs. E.
It might often have seemed so, but neither my late father nor Thomas Edison was right all the time. In the case of Mr. Edison, I refer specifically to the prickly AC/DC controversy, a.k.a. "the current wars." Direct Current (DC), as preached by Thomas Edison, travels along a wire in one direction. Alternating Current (AC), as championed by George Westinghouse, travels the same wire in two directions. Don't ask me how this works, as I haven't a clue. The fact that DC current was weak and couldn't travel very far, whereas AC was hearty and able to service far broader market areas, was a flaw in Edison's vision of dominating the electrical universe. By the late 1880s, Westinghouse and the AC crew were eating Edison alive, profit wise, in response to which Edison began issuing scare warnings like: "Just as certain as death, Westinghouse will kill a customer within 6 months." J.P. Morgan, who with the Vanderbilts had been an original underwriter of Edison Electric, eventually grew tired of the situation. In 1891 he stepped in, kicked Edison out of his own company, and founded General Electric which, in typical Morgan style would in time controil 75% of America's electrical generating business. Mr. and Mrs. Edisons both had desks in this room, lending one another moral support.
The Edisons slept in the same room, connected to the so-called "family living room" by an en suite bath (note the marble saddle).
There are four more bedrroms on the second floor — for Mina's daughter Madeleine (the future Mrs. Sloane), her son Theodore, plus a pair of guestrooms labeled North and West. Glenmont is full of nifty bathrooms, but I managed to get inside only one, located in the hall between the North and West guestrooms. Mina's son Charles slept on the third floor. Her stepchildren, Marion, Thomas Jr. and William Leslie are said to have "visited regularly," but never had their own rooms. (I'm leaving that one alone).
No, it is not a bidet, nor is it a foot bath or a sitzbath. If you know what it is, then by all means let me know.
The third floor was divided in two. Son Charles' bedroom, a billiard room, a sewing room and Mrs. Edison's secretary's office were on the south. On the north, a clutch of servants' cubicles located behind the door in the images below, opened onto a landing at the top of the back stair. Unfortunately, everything up here was packed with storage and locked up tight.
Once again I find myself, as I have almost every week for three years, at the top of the stairs in some great nifty pile. Let me make a fast pass by the greenhouse and the garage, then end with three random thoughts on Thomas Edison.

1) Did you know he was deaf? or virtually, anyway. "I haven't heard a bird sing since I was 9 years old."

2) In later life he ascribed his health and vigor to drinking one pint of milk every three hours.

3) Edison was home-schooled by his mother, not always a guarantee of open-mindedness in later life. Notwithstanding which, he was very much a free-thinker. "Nature is what we know," he said in a New York Times Magazine interview in 1910. "And nature is not kind, or merciful, or loving. If God made me — the fabled God of the three qualities of which I spoke: mercy kindness, love — he also made the fish I catch and eat. And where do His mercy, kindness, and love for that fish come in? No, nature made us — nature did it all — not the gods of the religions."

The Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, NJ incudes the Edison Labs and Glenmont mansion. Google for the link.
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