Monday, June 24, 2013

Thomas Edison's Winter Estate

This past weekend, friends and I went south to Ft. Meyers, Florida, to visit Thomas Edison's winter estate. It was a beautiful, sunny day that turned to showers, but not before I got some good photographs to share with you.

Edison bought the property in 1885, impressed with the fact that bamboo was growing there (he was already thinking that bamboo might be the perfect filament for his light bulb). He drew up plans for the property, left them with an architect, and then headed back north.

The house was prefabricated with lumber from Maine and brought to Ft. Meyers by boat, where it was all unloaded at this spot.

The house is in three parts. The left and middle sections were built first, with the main house in the middle — and at the left — a separate wing for the kitchen and dining room, and servants' quarters.

In 1886, Edison moved in with his new bride, Mina, who eventually redesigned the living arrangements as they look today. Under Mina Edison's plan, the left building became a sleeping house, the main house (in the middle) remained as it was, and then a duplicate of the main house was added on the right, turning the new building into a guest house. The Edison kitchen and dining room was in the guest house.

Here's a view of Mina and Thomas' bedroom. One is impressed by the fact that the Edisons lived very well, but also comparatively simply.

A fire hose is attached to the main house.

the main house
a view of the Edison living room
The Edison dining room was on the ground floor of the guest house.
The kitchen was also part of the guest house.

  The main house and guest house are surrounded by wide verandas.

In 1916, Henry Ford — who idolized Edison — built this house about 100 feet from the guest house, and the two families spent the remaining years vacationing together.

We were quite taken by these tin shingles on the Ford house.

photo by Hal Conroy
The Edison estate has many outbuildings and garden areas. Above is Edison's swimming pool and "tea house." The swimming pool is in great shape after 100 years because ...

... it was built with Edison's own cement, which contained a mixture of calcium, silicon, aluminum, iron and small amounts of other materials.

On the left is Mina's "Moonlight Garden." Electric lights are strung above it. On the right is a small office that Ford built for Edison, on the site of Edison's original vacation laboratory.

click to enlarge
One can also peek into the larger laboratory that Edison eventually built on the estate. Here he discovered, after experimenting with 1700 plants, that Goldenrod could provide a source for rubber. Tire maker Harvey Firestone was a partner in that endeavor. Firestone gave Edison a four-foot banyan tree in 1925, and today the tree (below) covers almost a full acre. Supposedly, it's the largest banyan tree in the United States.


Because of Thomas Edison's botanical research, the Edison estate has a great variety of trees from around the world, and many of them are quite large huge. The tree below is a Mysore Fig.


There is a museum on the grounds, and it contains many of the hundreds of products that Edison invented. As one wanders from display to display, one is impressed not just by his creative and fertile mind, but also by the fact that he clearly saw the big picture, and the natural progression of ideas. Just as he invented the light bulb and the generator to run it, he also invented the meter to measure how much energy had been used.


Someone once asked Thomas Edison, then nearing the end of his life, what he saw for the future. This is how he answered:

24 comments:

  1. Dear Mark - this is my last comment before closing down the computer for a few days.
    The Mysore Fig is an extraordinary tree which I first encountered near your neighbourhood at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.
    I do love those wonderful wide verandas and can imagine what a welcome place they must be to relax on during hot days and warm evenings.
    A very profound prediction by Thomas Edison.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Rosemary,

      I too have visited the Selby Botanical Gardens — they are a jewel, and your comment has reminded me that I should post on them.

      Reading Edison's 1931 quote, I wonder whether he might have come up with a completely different direction for solar power. Were he alive today, maybe we would be moving away from fossil fuels more quickly.

      Delete
  2. There's almost a plantation style about the architecture, or is that stating the obvious? The banyan is amazing. It would be nice if ours dropped a few stems and started growing too. They provide the most perfect shade for one end of the pool.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Columnist,

      That first "sleeping house" certanily has the feel of a plantation structure, as you say, and that is accentuated by a perfect row of Royal Palms behind the houses, and another row in front. The Edisons called the walkways "alleys." Note that the shutters are the real deal.

      Delete
  3. I long to visit this place but this a great vicarious substitution.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, Scott - We made this a full day trip; there's a lot to see in the museum that's on the grounds.

      Delete
  4. Hello Hello Mark!!
    What a treat it is to start off the week lost in your blog... It's been much too long! I so enjoyed seeing Edison's Florida house-- it looks so comfortable and cozy... I can just imagine the incredible conversations that Edison, Ford and Firestone must have had on those verandas... Thanks for another fascinating post-- I'm sure it'll be the topic of conversation at dinner tonight.
    Warm regards,
    Erika

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello, Erika,

      I'm glad you've made it back to the blogosphere! One of the things that would have made those conversations between Edison, Ford and Firestone interesting is that Edison was almost completely deaf. Ford would literally yell into Edison's ear, and I'm told that Edison would sink his teeth into Mina's piano to hear the music. Mina and Thomas communicated through Morse Code, which is the way he proposed marriage to her!

      Delete
  5. The house is lovely and so graciously appointed. I like the mix of mahogany furniture with the wicker pieces - sophisticated yet casual. And that veranda is perfect for cocktails!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, Loi,

      Don't forget that the Edisons were vacationing here in the winter, so those days on the verandas would have probably have been in usually pleasant temperatures. Yes, I would enjoy an extended happy hour here, too!

      Delete
  6. What a brilliant man he was...(no pun intended) The design of the house allows an even amount of natural and air circulation from the porch, Those built in bookcases in the living room are wonderful and the tea house made me swoon. The cement was an added bonus! I am doing some studies on the history of it right now and this ties in nicely. Thanks Mark, this is one of your best posts!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Theresa,

      How interesting that you're studying cement. I urge you to look up what you can about one of Edison's Menlo Park buildings that got razed (in our time). The folks who started in on the job got the surprise of their life because they did not understand that Edison, using his own cement, had intended whatever he built to withstand anything!

      Delete
  7. beautiful house and such an important legacy. I had no idea he was friends with the Fords! Looks like a really fun trip :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Stefan,

      When I say that Henry Ford idolized Edison, I mean that quite literally. Long before he had achieved his own fame, Ford wrote to Edison, asking for a signed photograph to put on his desk.

      Harvey Firestone was a mutual friend, and the three would often go camping together.

      Delete
  8. SO fascinating, Mark. Thomas Edison was such a brilliant man.

    Although I read that he could be rather single minded and oblivious to life's niceties when he was in the middle of the next Big Idea, it's obvious he did enjoy pleasant surroundings and comfort.

    That pool area looks divine.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Yvette,

      I've read that Edison could be oblivious to life's niceties, and Tesla (who was no friend) commented on how slovenly Edison could be. But as one wanders around the Edison estate, one does get the impression that Mina made a lovely homelife (and cleaned him up)!

      Delete
  9. I hope to visit here before too long. It seems to be in great condition, by the way.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Classicist,

      The Edisons continued to use the winter estate until 1947, the year that both Henry Ford and Mina Edison died. Mina sold the estate to the city of Ft. Meyers that year, and left most of the furniture. It is beautifully maintained and really looks as though they've just stepped out to run an errand.

      Delete
  10. Hello Mark, I'm not surprised the parts were shipped from Maine--this reminds me in some ways of a New England beach house. The wide porches are both impressive and inviting, and it would be worth a visit there just to see that banyan tree. The house itself looks very comfortable, with just enough ornament and special features to keep things interesting.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello, Jim,

      As I look at the front of the main house, it occurs to me that Edison might have recreated a house from childhood memories. I would not be surprised if Edison was very specific about materials to be used (timber from Maine, for example) because he clearly was interested in the durability of everything attached to his name.

      Delete
  11. Dear Mark,
    What a lovely house. I like the colours and I do like the red brick on that fireplace in the bedroom. It stands out nicely in contrast to the rest of the room.
    I like the verandahs, the dining room, the moonlight garden, in fact everything! If I ever get to Florida I shall make sure to visit it too!

    I enjoyed my tour of Edison's Winter Estate.

    Bye for now

    Kirk

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm glad you liked it, Kirk. It would be a great winter house, even today — all you'd need to do is update the kitchen.

      Delete
  12. Great post! Just went here and enjoyed it immensely!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for visiting — at Edison's and here!

      Delete