20 years later … George Eastman House

Posted by on May 18 2010 | House & Gardens

This post first appeared in the Democrat and Chronicle’s Arts Community Blog, written and maintained by arts and cultural organizations in the Rochester NY area.

As I walk through the first and second floors of George Eastman House each Monday, to do my weekly inspection, it seems amazing to me that it was 20 years ago that a crew of artisans, contractors and volunteers just completed a massive restoration of George Eastman’s National Historic Landmark home.

The Conservatory today, 20 years after restoration.

Under the leadership of Georgia Gosnell, museum trustee and member of the House Restoration committee the entire exterior of 900 East Avenue and the first floor of the mansion was returned to the splendor Mr. Eastman enjoyed when he lived here from 1905 until his death in 1932.

Most visitors today are surprised when they learn the house had to be restored. They think the house always looked like it does now. Nothing is farther from the truth. But first some history …

When George Eastman died he left his home and all of its contents (that his relatives did not want) to the University of Rochester in his will. The university used the house as the residence for two of its presidents.  The 50-room Colonial Revival home was extremely expensive to maintain so eventually the U of R looked for another use for the property. A group of local businessmen and community leaders decided it would make a great museum of photography and film.

Converting a historic home to function as a museum meant removing doors from all the bedrooms, bathrooms, and closets and making gallery space to show cameras and photos.

Plumbing and plaster ceilings were removed, original light fixtures replaced, and much of the furniture ended up in museum offices or, worse yet, thrown out onto East Avenue.

The museum’s growing collections created a space problem in the house, which eventually led to the building of the 75,000-square-foot archives facility in 1989, leaving an almost empty Eastman House ready for restoration.

The goal was to create a three-dimensional biography of George Eastman — the man who founded Kodak and made photography easy enough for everyone to do.

The Conservatory during the renovation project in the late 1980s.

Using all of the photos GE (as his friends called him) had left behind of his home and all of the letters his secretary was smart enough to save, a “picture perfect” restoration was possible. Craftsmen worked for 14 months to repair the marble and wood floors, reproduce the plaster ceilings, rebuild or repair original furnishings.

Paint analysis and scrapings revealed all of the original colors and they were reapplied. Draperies were remade and hung on the same rods as Eastman had used. Even the hardware door knobs, hinges, and shutter pulls were carefully cleaned and reused or reproduced to match the ones still intact.

As I reflect on so many other changes that have occurred over the past 20 years — including the economy, the revolution we have experienced in hand-held technology, and even my own hair color — I am amazed how well 900 East Avenue has stood the test of time.  It is  truly a testament to the classic design and high quality materials GE selected many years ago and the extraordinary  skilled craftsmen and woman hired two decades ago to restore it.

Repairing and painting the elephant head on Monday, May 17.

With that said, restoration and repair still continue today. As I write this, the reproduction elephant trophy that hangs in the Conservatory is being cleaned and repaired by craftsmen from the Jonas Bros. Studios in Brewster N,Y. (No relation to the popular singing group) I noticed hairline cracks in the trunk and near the ears so I asked them to make a house call.  Why bring in a company from Brewster, NY?  Well they were the taxidermy company GE used in 1928 following the African safari, and they were also the ones that we went to to create and install the reproduction trophy for us 20years ago as part of the original restoration process.]

Everything comes full circle.

To learn more about the restoration process you can stop by the George Eastman  Archive & Study Center or email Kathy Connor at kconnor@geh.org.

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    Kathy Connor is the Curator of the George Eastman Legacy Collection. She oversees the care & maintenance of George Eastman's 50 room Colonial Revival mansion & the George Eastman Archive which contains over 162,000 other artifacts that tell the history of the Eastman Kodak Company and its founder George Eastman. Connor joined the museum staff in 1982 as the museum's Education & Volunteer coordinator.

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