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George Eastman Museum
Gracing the City of Rochester’s East Avenue, the George Eastman House is a mansion, estate, museum, and archive that testifies to the brilliance of a local visionary. As a willful entrepreneur and founder of the Eastman Kodak Company, George Eastman spearheaded the effort to simplify the process of photography, thus making “the camera as convenient as the pencil.” The house and institution he built attests to this ambitious dream and to the wealth that he acquired in its pursuit.
Doubling as both a residence and a pastime, the original house was erected on what had been an 8.5-acre farm—the last of its kind on an otherwise prestigious urban boulevard. It was located just up the road from his former dwelling on East Avenue, a street that was, and still is, the most exclusive one in Rochester. Between 1902 and 1905, this $500,000 project resulted in a 35,000-square-foot residence with 50 rooms, custom-made furniture, eight gardens, five greenhouses, a dairy, an orchard, a berry patch, a poultry yard, a toolshed, a barn, stables, and livestock pastures. In its conception and use, it was as much a self-contained urban farm as it was an elegant estate.
Local architect J. Foster Warner was responsible for the design of the house, and the prominent firm McKim, Mead and White worked on the interiors. Inspired by his domestic and European travels, Eastman wanted a dignified mansion that would stand the test of time, so he abandoned the then dominant Victorian styles of the period and commissioned a Colonial Revival structure. The exterior includes Georgian, Dutch, and Greek elements, while the interior features Roman, Gothic, and Tudor inspired design. This eclecticism was common for houses of the wealthy at the time.
The now ivy-covered front of the main quarters has a majestic classical portico harkening back to the house in which Eastman was born and raised. The three-story rectangular edifice has a Dutch gable roof topped with a balustrade. There is a supplementary wing to the north, a side porch to the east, and a car entrance to the west. The exterior is composed of Roman brick with limestone accents, a material approach that mimics a house Eastman had admired in Buffalo: the Robert Root House designed by McKim, Mead and White (1894, now demolished). The interior surfaces are coated in wood, plaster, or marble. The public rooms display impeccable detail, intricate craftsmanship, and elegant decor. William Rutherford Mead oversaw the design of these rooms and Francis Bacon of the A.H. Davenport Company was responsible for most of the interior decoration and furniture.
In contrast to its historical aesthetic, the house was outfitted with every modern convenience. Given Eastman’s obsession with flammable films and chemicals, his residence was fireproof and built with steel reinforced concrete, 14-inch-thick outer walls, a concrete roof, and sliding steel doors that could close off rooms in case of an emergency. The complex had its own electric generator, along with telephone and vacuum cleaning systems, a clock network, an elevator, thermostats, and a heating system.
The grand double staircase that separates the foyer from the conservatory (designed by Mead) is the defining feature of the space, leading the eye both to the two-story conservatory beyond and to the oval oculus above. The glass-covered conservatory was Eastman’s favorite room. It contains an elephant head, an array of potted plantings, plenty of windows that allow for ample natural light, a beautiful iron arch leading to the dining room, and an organ that extends into the depths of the building. He took breakfast there every morning accompanied by the sounds of the Aeolian organ and presided over concerts in the conservatory on Sunday evenings. Nonetheless, its square plan never pleased him. In 1919, the Eichleay Corporation expanded the conservatory by splitting the house in two and filling the gap with the nine-foot extension.
The grounds of the house are also a study in contrasts. The rear section housed barns, cows, chickens, as well as vegetable and flower gardens. To the east was a more formal landscape, designed by Alling Stephen DeForest, that reflects the clear influence of geometric Italian Renaissance landscapes. The complementary garden to the west, opposite the porte-cochere, was designed by Claude Bragdon. These gardens underwent numerous restoration efforts over the years, and were finally refurbished to their present-day condition between 1983 and 1992. The library garden, rock garden, and grape arbor were also revived during this time. Eastman wanted a vast range of aesthetic vegetation in the gardens surrounding his residence, and included native and exotic flowers.
After Eastman’s suicide in 1932, the house served as a residence for the presidents of the University of Rochester until 1947. During this time, alterations were made to the interior and the grounds were simplified for maintenance reasons. When the house was bequeathed to George Eastman House, Inc., it was converted into an international museum of photography and film in 1949, one of the first dedicated to this purpose.
In the years that followed, the museum developed an asymmetrical plan through a series of expansions: the Dryden Theatre was affixed in 1950; the carriage house was renovated in 1951; and the Brackett Clark Gallery was adjoined in 1952. Most dramatically, a new, largely subterranean, 73,000-square-foot archive, with a study center and galleries, was built in 1987. From 1987 to 1990, Georgia P. Gosnell spearheaded a $2 million restoration in order to repair the damage caused by public use and to reinstate the charm that was lost over the years. The Eastman House was rebuilt in accordance with the initial vision, a task simplified by the fact that Eastman had meticulously documented his beloved estate through photographs.
Eastman built his grand house at a time in his life when his career as an industrialist gave way to his career as a philanthropist. He clearly enjoyed the experience of designing and building. For the last decades of his life he sponsored the construction of a variety of buildings, from concert halls to hospitals to classroom buildings. Like his house, these combined traditional styles with modern amenities. Like his early cameras, and like his house-museum today, these projects were meant to be accessible to a large audience. In this way, the Eastman House is one of many monuments to his success and his generosity.
Brayer, Elizabeth. George Eastman: A Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1996.
Fulton, Marianne. The George Eastman House and Gardens. Rochester, NY: International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, 1992.
“History of George Eastman House.” George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. Accessed on June 3, 2015. www.eastmanhouse.org.
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