Glenmont Estate: Thomas Edison's Historical Home
WEST ORANGE, NEW JERSEY
Thomas Edison's home was built as an Americanized version of the Queen Anne Victorian style in 1880-82. It contained all the rudiments of today’s modern home—hot and cold running water, indoor bathrooms with flush toilets, central heating (via gravity convection), and refrigeration (via ice storage). Edison later wired the home for electricity in 1887.
The Glenmont Estate is an imposing structure whose extreme dimensions measure approximately 125 feet long, 116 feet wide, and 54 feet high. It originally contained 23 rooms, including 2 ½ bathrooms. A magnificent semicircular conservatory graces the south side of the home. The construction of Glenmont includes over 157,000 bricks, and in excess of 10,000 pounds of iron and steel framing. There are 23 fireplaces exiting through 7 chimneys. A total of 94 exterior windows grace the building, 41 of them adorned with canvas awnings. Over the years, the Edison’s added 6 more bathrooms, mostly on the second floor, for a total room count of 29 and ½ .
The name “Glenmont” is believed to be derived from the home’s proximity to a “glen” or ravine; while at the same time, the home sits on the apex of the “mount” of the property … hence the contraction Glenmont. The estate was named by its original owners Henry and Louise Pedder. No formal documents or maps exist, officially proclaiming the property as Glenmont.
The Edison estate resides in beautiful and historic Llewellyn Park, originally envisioned by Llewellyn Haskell in 1850 as a bucolic hillside refuge from the already teaming and exploding city populations of New York and Newark, NJ. The park is the first planned residential community in America, embodying the philosophy and vision of the country’s leading land planners and landscape architects……including the legendary Olmstead of Central Park fame. Billed as “country living for city folk” Llewellyn Park was and still is a verdant and tranquil environment. In Edison’s time, businessmen living in the park often commuted to New York, taking a train line at the bottom of the hill to Hoboken, NJ, and then a ferry across the Hudson to New York. Modern day businessmen still commute to New York, but the old train line is gone. Llewellyn Park is less than 20 miles from New York.
The Pedders originally commissioned architect Henry Hudson Holly to build Glenmont. Henry Pedder was a confidential secretary for the prestigious Arnold Constable Company in New York. Unknown to the company however, was Pedder’s stealing of corporate funds to finance the construction and furnishing of lovely Glenmont. Pedder and several other employees were in on the siphoning of Constable’s largess. In 1884, Pedder’s scheme was uncovered, and he was forced to hand over Glenmont to Constable.
Enter Tom and Mina Edison
In 1884, Edison’s first wife Mary Stillwell Edison dies young. He has 3 children; and a big project underway in New York to demonstrate his electric power station and distribution system for lighting … not to mention a broken heart. Through an arranged matchmaking operation, one of Edison’s good friends introduces Mina to Thomas in 1885, and in 1886, they marry. He was 39, she 19. His oldest daughter by the first marriage was 13 at the time.
Looking for a place near his contemplated new West Orange laboratories, Edison buys Glenmont in a distress sale, completely furnished, with barn and livestock, greenhouse, and all the grounds for $125,000. Mina had her choice of this estate or a townhouse in New York and wisely selected Glenmont. In the 1890s, Tom would sell the entire estate to Mina for $1, so no one could ever lay claim to his family’s home as the result of a legal suit against his inventions and manufacturing facilities.
In all, Tom and Mina would raise 6 children at Glenmont, Edison’s first three, Marion, Thomas Jr. and William; plus three more of their own, Madeline, Charles, and Theodore. The first set of children did not fare as well as the second. Contributing factors were probably: the traumatic death of their mother; Edison’s heavy work schedule at his Menlo Park site before moving to West Orange and the lack of time he spent with them; and, their original grounding in formal schooling was rather weak and insufficient to prepare them properly for the world. This was especially hard on Marion, whose temperament conflicted with Mina’s. This would be a problem between the two for several decades. Edison does spend more time with his second set of children, but his sometimes long absences is felt by them as well. As the most beautiful and spacious den at Glenmont attests, with all its attributions to Edison’s accomplishments, the man was a difficult model to follow, probably not all that much different than being the children of a famous actor or public figure.
Mina did a superb job of managing Glenmont. It was she who managed his social calendar, and kept him squared away with the many prominent people who came visiting at Glenmont; and there were many indeed. Before they became presidents, Wilson and Hoover ate there; as did the great conservationists and environmental activists, John Burroughs and John Muir (of Muir Woods in CA fame). Maria Montessori, Helen Keller, The kings of Siam and Sweden, and many great industrialists like Henry Ford, George Eastman, and Harvey Firestone spent time at the home. In the company of such great people, this can be hard on children to fathom just how famous their father is; and may also have been a contributing factor to their early development. Edison was not an easy man to deal with. He was stubborn and self-made, a potent combination that often results in excessive self-pride, not easily admitting to mistakes.
Daughter Madeline leaves interesting thoughts and reminisces about her dad’s eccentricities, a most telling one is, “My father had a strange affliction, he was the only person who could develop indigestion before dinner.” This was his chief excuse for leaving his dinner guests chatting with his understanding wife. He much preferred to spend his evenings in his upstairs “thought laboratory”, a commodious living room on the second floor, about 36 feet long by 25 feet wide, where surrounded by books, Edison spent hours developing the ideas his excellent staff would hammer into reality at his request. If he could avoid those pesky formal dinners, he would much rather do it. Most of his life, Edison was spare in his eating, preferring to follow a rigid philosophy of nourishment that contained just what he felt he needed and nothing more—although he did have a weakness for pies, taking a large chunk at lunch. But those formal dinners, he felt were wasteful of time.
His son Charles, who also was afflicted with hearing problems like his father, rose to become governor of New Jersey in 1941. Youngest son Theodore became a respectable inventor like his dad. Both sons went to MIT, and later put in considerable time helping dad manage the 30 or so companies that made up the Thomas A. Edison Corporation. Theodore also did some private consulting on his own. The much talked about deafness of Edison is now interpreted as being most likely due to a congenital problem, or perhaps spurred on by early childhood illness. Thomas was a delicate child.
In time however, he would grow into a more robust and highly motivated young man, essentially on his own by his early teenage years. This self-reliance would be his hallmark for the rest of his life, driving him relentlessly to solve problems. For him, the thrill was in the chasing down of the problem. This he loved. He was a hunter of solutions. As he was fond of saying, “All good things come to those who hustle while they wait”.
He did engage his children in his problem solving quests. To this day, one can see the little slips of paper in the many books of his living room library. His children would search out subject matter he was interested in reading and place the slips at the appropriate pages, piling the books on his large desk. After they went to bed, he would spend hours reading the references they had discovered. In between such team-based book research, Edison did enjoy a rollicking good game of Parchesi—a game he loved to win, and was not bashful about changing the rules when it suited him!
Mrs. Edison gave much of her talents and interest to her family and the community. She hailed from Akron Ohio, the daughter of Lewis and Mary Valinda Miller. Lewis an inventor of farm equipment and machinery, was a wealthy man who brought up his large family in strict religious fashion. In fact, Lewis was one of the two men originally responsible for conceiving of the western New York state religious retreat known as Chataugua, today an ecumenical gathering place for many on retreat, or attending seminars and conferences. Mina was used to being surrounded by famous people and this helped her immensely in her duties at Glenmont.
Over the years, Mina became an ardent conservationist and bird watcher. The lovely estate is planted with tree, and shrub species from around the world, still a wonderful delight when the seasons change. The operating greenhouse still exists on the estate and contains some of the descendants of the original plants dating back to the time of Edison. Mina also gave tirelessly to many civic, fraternal, educational, and religious groups in the community. She strongly believed that youth should be educated in the classic liberal tradition, in both the sciences and art. She herself an accomplished musician, tried to give this gift to her children. In our current efforts to achieve equality of the sexes, Mina would wonder what is taking so long. She was her husband’s equal, no doubt. She managed Glenmont, so Thomas could manage his labs. It was a partnership, as their adjoining desks in the upstairs living room attests.