Lewis Latimer House

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 58 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Latimer’s work on the lightbulb made him (slightly) famous, but he patented many other things. He invented a method of cooling a room by dampening fabric hung in a window.  And a rack that could safely lock your hat, coat, or umbrella, for use at offices or restaurants. And finally, a better train toilet, details of which I’m probably happier not to know.

Lewis Latimer, the son of escaped slaves, helped patent the telephone, refined the design of the light bulb, and ended up a Grand Old Man of the General Electric Company.  He also painted and wrote poetry.

He’s sort of a footnote to history — but a good footnote, and a meaningful one, not one of those ones you just skim over.  It’s therefore fantastic that his home in Flushing today serves as a museum to his memory.

Lewis Latimer House

The Man

Lewis Latimer was born in 1848 in Massachusetts. His parents were free, black, and poor, but because of the fight to win their freedom, they were on the radar of the higher echelons of abolitionist society, connections that may have helped Lewis start his career.

After the Civil War (at 16, he lied about his age to enlist in the Navy), Latimer got a job at a Boston patent attorney’s office, where he showed skill as a draftsman.  Indeed, in 1876 he created the drawings for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patent.  Skipping over some bits of his career, he himself patented an efficient way to make light bulb filaments, and eventually worked for Edison Electric, first as an engineer and draftsman, and later in the company patent office.

Lewis Latimer House Museum, Flushing, Queens
Lewis Latimer, with family and friends in 1923

He continued working first at Edison, then at General Electric, then finally as a consultant with a New York patent firm.  He retired at 75 in 1924, and died in 1928.

Outside of work Latimer was just as interesting. He played music, wrote poetry, painted, and taught English and drawing to new immigrants. I imagine him an inveterate learner and tinkerer, always curious about the new.  If Alice Austen were alive today, she’d be an Instagram star.  If Lewis Latimer were alive today, he might’ve invented Instagram.

Lewis Latimer House, Flushing, Queens
Inventor at Work

My mind is slightly boggled by Lewis Latimer.  Throughout his career, he must’ve been only black man in the places he worked. Certainly the only black executive.  I can’t imagine how hard that must have been, and how much determination this seemingly genial, nice guy must have had.

“We create our future, by well improving present opportunities; however few and small they be.”  –from “Hope,” by Lewis Latimer

The House

Latimer House Museum, Flushing
Moving the Latimer House

The Lewis Latimer House is a pretty, cheerful Queen Anne-style built in 1889.  The Latimers moved in in 1902. Like Hamilton Grange and several of the city’s other historic houses, isn’t where it started out.  When Latimer lived in it, it stood on Holly Avenue.  However, developers threatened it with demolition in 1988, and a group led by two of Latimer’s grandkids formed to save it by moving it almost two miles to its current location.  

Lewis Latimer House, Flushing, Queens

Latimer House by GE

Today visitors can see the ground floor rooms, which retain some original furniture and some of Latimer’s art. The rooms also feature a lot of wall text, hung from the picture rails. Fortunately it’s pretty readable. And you can see some of the tools of Latimer’s trade — drafting instruments and such, and reproductions of some of his poetry and designs.  

I feel like this place needs someone (GE? Which has already paid for a lot of it.) to underwrite a video about Latimer.  Teedie Roosevelt got one, and Latimer’s story would be at least as telegenic.

The House does a lot with school groups, springboarding from Latimer’s story to teach kids about contemporary science, technology, engineering and math (or “STEM”) professions.

Lewis Latimer House, Queens
The Workshop/STEM Room

Should You Visit the Lewis Latimer House?

I’m really glad I visited Lewis Latimer’s house.  His story is an inspirational reminder that sometimes talented, skilled, determined Americans can rise to, if not exactly dizzying heights, at least infinitely higher than where they started out.

My inner cynic says maybe those times are behind us now.  But my inner optimist hopes not.

The City, which owns Lewis Latimer House today, is in the midst of sprucing up the exterior.  The caretaker wryly commented on how long it’s taking, and hopes his family has a new roof before winter.  As a result, the outside of the house doesn’t look so great these days. Fortunately the interior is fine, at least as of this review.

Having recently visited the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum, where Alexander Graham Bell plays the villain, it’s interesting to visit the home of one of Bell’s accomplices.  If only poor Meucci had the means to hire Lewis Latimer!

People interested in the history of technology, fans of patents and patent law, and those interested in African American history will all adore the Latimer House. But I think the appeal is wider than that — this place tells a small but important story, and does it very well. I strongly recommend a visit.

For Reference:

Address 34-41 137th Street, Flushing, Queens
Website latimernow.org
Cost  General Admission:  Free (Donation)
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