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Lewis Latimer House in Flushing goes public

By Cynthia Koons

While there are at least three museums honoring Thomas Alva Edison including his lab, birthplace and a national historic site in New Jersey, there is only one place people can go to remember Latimer. Officially open to the public last Thursday, the scientists' Flushing home will now serve as a destination for those interested in learning more about his contributions toward the development of the light bulb.The local activists who were instrumental in opening Latimer's house have worked hard to raise money to preserve the home and promote the scientist who invented the carbon filament that makes bulbs burn brightly for extended periods of time.His house in Flushing was a little known historic landmark until last week when it opened its doors to the public. At the evening ceremony held by the new director of the museum, only a few people other than active members of the local black community were there to witness the event.One of the visitors was 9-year-old Brendan Morgenstern, a student from Richmond Hill who happened to be writing a book report for Black History Month about Latimer at the time the house was unveiled to the public.”This is unbelievable that we found this,” said Brendan's father, Leslie Morgenstern. “The most amazing part (of doing the book report) was finding that his house was in Queens and it was being restored.”Brendan said he chose to write his book report on Latimer “because he's special, he helped create the light bulb.”Latimer was born in 1848 in Massachusetts to runaway slaves. He joined the Union Navy during the Civil War and began working as a draftsman at a young age. In the years that followed, he helped Alexander Graham Bell secure his patent for the telephone before creating the material that made light bulbs last for extended periods of time.By 1881, he had perfected a method to create inexpensive, long-lasting light bulb filaments and began traveling to Philadelphia, Montreal, London and New York to supervise the wiring of those cities.During that time Edison offered Latimer a job at Edison Light Company, now known as General Electric, and the black scientist stayed on with them for 25 years. It was then that he moved to Flushing. His house, originally on Holly Avenue, had a home office where he worked on some of his drafting and designs. He died in 1928.”I'm excited because Lewis Latimer becomes a visible role model for science, technology and the African Americans' contribution to science,” Executive Director Katrina Miles said. “One of the things that's really important to me in terms of Lewis Latimer and this house is the science and technology part of it.”Latimer's book, “Incandescent Light,” is considered the basis for the field of study known as electrical engineering today.His granddaughter, Winifred Latimer Norman, 90, was sitting in one of the rooms of the house last Thursday night watching the fruits of her labor come to life.”I played in this house,” she said.The home belonged to the family until 1963, when it was put on the market and sold. In the late 1980s, Latimer's descendants formed a non-profit organization to preserve the home. The house, which was threatened with demolition by a developer, was trucked from Holly Avenue to the empty plot where it now sits at 34-41 137th St. in 1988.The Latimer fund, created by those interested in keeping the house alive, kicked off a fund-raising campaign in 2003 that led to the opening of the museum.Norman, vice president of the fund, remembers the rooms of the house from her childhood and said Latimer was a kind, loving and playful grandfather.”I was so young,” she said of her memories of Latimer. “They would tell us he was a great inventor.”She was pleased to see how well the new organization was maintaining the house.In lobbying to get the house declared a historic landmark, she said she did not face any resistance.”(We encountered) more ignorance than anything else,” she said.Anyone interested in visiting the house can call the office at (718) 961-8585.Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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