The winter homes of T. Edison and H. Ford
There are towns and cities worldwide that have preserved the homes of important persons of historical significance. These museum homes promote respect for those that lived in prior times. The town of Fort Myers, Florida has conserved the winter estates of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, two of it’s most famous residents.
Inventor Thomas Edison purchased a countryside, riverfront property near the fledgling town of Fort Myers in 1885. He then had the land cleared and built a home the following year. Edison soon set out to improve and beautify the property. The subtropical climate of southern Florida displayed promising qualities for Edison’s interest in experimenting with plants. He grew shrubs, flowers, trees, stands of bamboo and a wide variety of tropical plants, some for study others for their beauty. Edison designed the landscape to include walking paths with benches, fountains, a lily pond, a separate office building, an artesian fed swimming pool and a moonlight garden. “Seminole Lodge” as the new home was called became a winter retreat for Edison and his family for the next 61 years.
Conserving old homes help us to understand the history that occurred there, sometimes long before we were born. The winter estate of Thomas Edison attracts over 25,000 visitors a year that come to experience the “spirit” of the place.
The year that Thomas Edison bought the property in 1885 was the same year that the town of Fort Myers was officially incorporated. The population was 349. By 1890 when Edison was getting “Seminole Lodge” in good order the census registered 575 citizens. There were only a few mercantile stores and a handful of businesses in Fort Myers back then. Grocery stores as we know them did not exist. At that time food that needed to be kept chilled was kept in an “ice box”, cooled by blocks of ice. Fortunately for Edison he could afford a full time groundskeeper that supplied fresh vegetables, fruit, eggs and honey for the tale.
Living history museums and preservation homes can inspire visitors to examine models of self sufficiency. Historical exhibits that display traditional methods of maintaining a household may showcase economic alternatives. Herbs and table vegetables, fruit, eggs, all harvested on a property were ways our forefathers were self sufficient. There is much to learn from history where there are alternatives to today’s corporate controlled world.
A very important purpose for preserving old buildings is that they document innovations in architecture. Use of new materials and building techniques mark a specific time when there were shifts in architectectural style. The advent of electrical lighting and the subsequent appliances used at the turn of the 20th century fundamentally changed architectural design for oncoming generations. Edison’s perfection of the light bulb and inventive work with electricity changed how interior spaces could be utilized and added hours to productive or leisure time for a household. Thomas Edison was not only a prolific inventor but a successful business man as well. The lighting fixtures at Seminole Lodge were designed and manufactured at his lighting company.
As changes in architectural design can be placed on a timeline, so to can interior furnishings. New materials and advanced manufacturing are not the only methods that influence style, other influences from the world of politics or art have also changed public taste. For example; world events … In 1853 -54 Commodore Matthew Perry with an expeditionary fleet of U.S. Naval warships and a policy of gunboat diplomacy threatened the island of Japan into a negotiation that ended it’s 220 year period of isolation. The opening of trade with Japan led to a fascination by western countries with Asian culture. The coined term Japanism was first used in France to describe the sweeping Japanese influence on the arts. Japanism affected fine arts, sculpture, architecture, performing arts and decorative arts in western culture. The influence of this at Seminole Lodge can be seen in the preserved, original bamboo and wicker furniture owned by Edison. The light airy design and materials were well suited to the Florida climate as opposed to the heavy upholstered Victorian furniture in favor a few decades earlier. When maintained wicker and bamboo furniture is long lasting, very durable, the material has sustainable quick growth potential and is biodegradable.
In this age of world wide plastic contamination it is important for all of us to find alternatives to plastic when possible. Bamboo, rattan and wicker are renewable resources. A historical alternative to consider.
Business associate and friend, automobile tycoon Henry Ford purchased a home next to Thomas Edison in 1916. Here Edison and Ford could participate in idle conversation, discuss business activity and share inventive ideas while sitting under shady porches. They could enjoy the waterfront grounds or go fishing and boating on the Caloosahatchee River. Set in such fine surroundings the Edison/Ford winter estates offered a pleasant respite from the cold northern winters where the men lived the remainder of the year. The town of Fort Myers took great community pride in having two such famous people as residents. It could be said that it was one of the reasons that led to the development of the town. There is no doubt that the Edison/Ford winter estates offered opportunities for the growing communities future and since it has been preserved, it continues to offer opportunities for the communities future.
Preserving buildings and objects of historical significance is not only a reflection of our history but can improve the economic prosperity of a neighborhood area or town. Maintaining and saving architectural monuments can attract tourists that also stop at nearby cafes, restaurants, attractions, shops, and filling stations. Places like the Edison/Ford historical property stimulate the local economy through employment. Locals are hired for grounds and maintenance, cashiers, office staff, greeters, interpreters and security. Professional positions needing filled at various old buildings and home museums might be facilities manager, public relations, historian, archivist, curator, preservationist, exhibits designer and researcher. Preserving old buildings promotes the living heritage of a town. That heritage will continue if preservationists will interpret and manage the resource well for future generations.
It’s ironic that Henry Ford master of the assembly line and mechanized manufacturing would have his winter home decorated in the Arts and Crafts style. Founders of the Arts and Crafts movement were the first major critics of the Industrial Revolution. They sought to return to a simpler more fulfilling way of life. The practitioners of the movement believed that the connection between the artist and his work through handcraft was the key to producing human fulfillment and beautiful items. Ford’s living room area of the home has an extensive use of wood in the trim, ceiling and paneling. A signature of Arts and Crafts architecture. The Gustav Stickley and Mission Style oak furniture compliment the woods natural warmth and the combination exudes a relaxing, less formal comfort to the room.
Notice the fireplace. In Florida during December and January evening temperatures can drop into the 40s and lower. Both Edison and Ford had wood burning fireplaces to keep off the chill.
The difference between the Arts and Crafts style and the earlier Victorian style can be seen by comparing the lighting fixtures at Edison and Ford’s homes. At Edison’s Seminole Lodge the lighting fixtures are fanciful and of intricate design, common in the Victorian Era. Remember, Seminole Lodge was built in 1886.
At The Mangoes, Henry Ford’s winter retreat the lighting fixtures are of the Arts and Crafts style. Built in 1915 and purchased by Ford in 1916 we can affix a point on the timeline when architectural style and design transitioned from older previous fashions. The lighting fixtures at The Mangoes have the identifying handcrafted appearance of the Arts and Crafts movement. In America there was not the ambivalence towards machines used in the manufacturing process as there was in England. The important factor was the style and design.
At The Mangoes there was a wing with servants quarters and a guest room. Simple practical rooms, nothing extravagant. When the Mangoes was purchased in 1916 Henry Ford was a wealthy man, not as rich as he would become in the following decades but quite well off. It’s interesting to note how modest the home and interior design is. An insight into Ford’s personality? Quite a contrast to the vacation homes of today’s wealthy class.
The name Ford is recognized worldwide. Henry Ford’s legacy that started in the early years of the 20th century continues to this day. His development of the assembly line, improved manufacturing processes, innovations in automobile design, marketing a motor car for the masses and business success in operating a company that exists to this day all contribute to his legacy. Thomas Edison on the other hand is not a name as recognized as it once was. One of America’s most prolific inventors, Edison’s work on the light bulb, electrical systems, generators, batteries, telephones, phonographs and movie projectors had a major impact on society at the turn of the last century. Now he is relegated to a historical past. His inventions have been surpassed by new technologies.
Thomas Edison is mostly associated with electrical inventiveness and the copious number of his patents. Lesser known about him was his interest and passion for plants of all kinds. In 1925 Edison planted a four foot tall, two inch diameter Ficus Benghalensis (India Banyan tree). The tree produces a white sap that Edison and his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone hoped to use in making natural rubber. The banyan was not the answer to the rubber experiment but it has remained. It has been preserved. It has been protected.
The tree now dominates the entrance to the Edison Ford Winter Estates. It is the largest banyan tree in the continental United States, covering more than an acre and supported by more than 350 roots. A living memorial to Thomas Edison.
Visiting historical properties reminds us of the possibilities of humankind. Monumental structures or a simple cottage both tell a story. They are part of a communities heritage. When those buildings are lost so to go the old stories, and the living heritage is diminished.
Preserving old buildings and the homes of historically significant people promotes respect for those that lived in prior times. These places can attract visitors that come to experience the “spirit” of a place. Old buildings show that there are alternatives to today’s corporate controlled world by relearning the ways our forefathers practiced self sufficiency. Preserving old buildings document innovations in architecture. To slow down the world wide plastic contamination a historical alternative to consider is the use of renewable resources like bamboo, wicker and rattan. In the past the Edison/Ford winter estates offered opportunities for the growing communities future and since it has been preserved, it continues to offer opportunities for the communities future. Preserving buildings and objects of historical significance can improve the economic prosperity of an area. Maintaining and saving architectural monuments can attract tourists. Places like the Edison/Ford historical property stimulate the local economy through employment and tourism. Preserving old buildings, historically significant homes and various monuments makes good sense.
Whether it be sentimental nostalgia, research studies for a historical project or simple curiosity, old buildings and homes provide educational resources. History can teach us much about living, including alternatives to today’s fast paced world.
Be well my friends, Dohn