Flushing’s Lewis Latimer House is rarely open to the public, as the house lacks funding and does not have an executive director. However, the city’s Historic House Trust hopes to turn things around by implementing a pilot program to rejuvenate it through community involvement over the next few years.
Lewis Latimer worked with Thomas Edison and other prominent 19th-century inventors to make stable electric lightbulbs.
Latimer’s house sits beside Levitts Park, as a monument to his legacy as a self-educated draftsman, inventor, painter, poet and community activist. He was also the son of fugitive slaves who were prominent in the abolitionist movement.
The house, which is the sole African- American museum in Flushing, is only open to the public on Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 5 p.m., with tours available by appointment. Admission is $3 per child and $4 per adult.
The Queen Anne-style house was built on Holly Avenue in the late 1880s and Lewis Latimer lived in it from 1903 until his death in 1928. The Latimer family continued living there until 1963. When the house was threatened with demolition, a coalition was created to save it and the house was moved to its present location on 137th Street in 1988.
The house reopened to the public in 2000 and has had mild success in drawing community members and school tours to the house, according to Al Rankin, the temporary director and board chairman of the Latimer Fund, which runs the house on a daily basis.
“It’s been a struggle,” Rankin said.
The house used to have an executive director, who ran programs and generated funding, but the last executive director quit because she could not get grants to cover her salary.
The Historic House Trust, which runs 23 house museums in New York City, took control of the house in 2008, around the time the last executive director left. Since then, the house has rarely been open.
“They do about as good a job as they probably can do with the resources they have,” Rankin said.
The Historic House Trust oversees major rehabilitations to the house.
Caretaker Joel Holub deals with many of the issues old wooden houses are prone to, such as leaks, paint loss and rot with stop gap measures. He is awaiting a new roof this fall and hopes that he can look forward to a leak-free house.
According to Frank Vagnone, the executive director of the Historic House Trust, the Latimer House just received a $100,000 grant from the New York Community Trust, to launch a pilot program called the “Anarchists Guide to Historic House Museums.”
He said that most historic houses are having a hard time because of lagging interest and relevance, a diminished volunteer base, and reduced funding for brick-and-mortar preservation.
The pilot program would revamp the house’s programming to meet the needs and interests of the surrounding communities and younger generations by making the house more interactive and incorporating technology and social media.
“It’s time to move to the next level as a historic house museum,” he said.
For example, Vagnone envisions museums where visitors can sit on seats and pull records off a shelf and play them. He also advocates lively and creative exhibits that incorporate academics, actors and dancers.
“We need to go out to the community and find out what’s important to them,” Vagnone said. “We can’t force history on them.”
The Historic House Trust is also planning to start a program for children with autism and physical disabilities.
The pilot program is in its infancy, as the Historic House Trust is still assembling a 10-person team, conducting demographic research, compiling ideas and contacting community organizations. It is also hiring interns to implement the programs, according to Vagnone.
“I don’t want these places to close,” Vagnone said. “Let’s formulate a new business model to keep them from closing so that they’re here for our grandkids, and so that they can understand the reasons we love them.”
Rankin said that he would like to have a new executive director to put on more programs and keep the house open five days a week. Rankin said he envisions students coming in to do research and a yearly arts and crafts fair for children to present creative designs.
The Latimer Fund is also charged with finding funds for a new executive director.
Vivian Warfield, the last executive director, who left in 2008 after working at the house for two years, was recommended by Borough President Helen Marshall and had previously worked in the Department of Cultural Affairs under Mayor David Dinkins. Rankin said Warfield created a video about the house and Latimer’s life, set up a youth academy group to encourage children to consider careers in science and worked with interns from Flushing High School.
“We’re hoping to keep this house alive in the community,” Rankin said.
The Latimer House participates in Open House New York every October and in Flushing’s Historic Holiday House Tour in December.
“Because he was an artist and his kids were too, we want to keep that going and make it a cultural place,” Holub said.
Paintings by Latimer and his daughters hang above a piano in one room, which has a table filled with vintage lamps with novelty lightbulbs and a table for children to do art projects.
Christina Cipriani teaches a summer art class at the house, where small groups of children make Plexiglass picture frames and sun catchers every Monday and Friday.
Vagnone underscored the significance of the Latimer House, as one of the few sites in the city dedicated to preserving an African-American legacy.
“What he did surpassed race,” Vagnone said. “What he did impacted all communities.”
For information on the Latimer House call (718) 961-8585.