Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Edison's West Orange house: a real steal!

Thomas Edison's 29 room Queen Anne style mansion stands as a true Victorian-era gem in the exclusive, gated West Orange community of Llewellen Park. While members of the inventor's family lived in the home for over 60 years, it wasn't built for or by the Edisons, and in fact, its origins have a distinctly criminal bent.

Thomas Edison houseGlenmont, as the estate is known, was the dream home of Henry C. Pedder, a confidential clerk in the offices of New York retailer Arnold Constable and Company. Pedder and his wife Louisa spent close to $400,000 in 1880 to purchase 13 acres at the crest of a hill in Llewellen Park, hire famed architect Henry Hudson Holly, and build and furnish the home with the finest materials. The entryway alone is paneled in oak and mahogany, and papered with gilded, embossed wallcovering. An aspiring writer, Pedder had an opulent library built on the first floor, with hand-stenciled walls and ceilings, as well as glass-doored bookcases filled with rows and rows of leather-bound volumes. Even the servants quarters were among the best to be found in a grand house of the time.

One would wonder how a department store clerk could afford to spend nearly a half million dollars building a luxurious home. Truth was, he couldn't. Pedder used his trusted status at Constable to siphon the money from the company books, not just for the house, but for trips to Europe and prime beef for his three dogs. It was estimated that he spent about $30,000 per year to keep up the lavish lifestyle he shared with Louisa, her widowed sister and the sister's three children, and none of the neighbors suspected a thing. It seems that he was living a bit of a double life, as neighbors and townspeople assumed that he was a partner in the company because of his supposed income. At the same time, Constable executives knew little of his home life, given that West Orange was considered to be countryside in those days, and not many New Yorkers would have visited the community.

Eventually, though, Pedder's forgery was discovered, along with similar thefts made by other Constable employees. Forced to sell the property to the company for a dollar, he was given the choice of going to jail or leaving the country, and he prudently chose a life outside the United States to a future behind bars. He'd enjoyed just four years of graceful living in his custom-built home.

The estate languished on the real estate market for two years before Thomas Edison bought it for half the price it took to build and furnish, as a wedding gift for his second wife, Mina Miller. He declared it as far too fancy for him, but not nearly fancy enough for his young bride. She became the household executive, running the estate while he was focused nearly exclusively on his new laboratory just a mile away on Main Street.

Mina made substantial renovations to the house over the years, but curiously, she left Pedder's library untouched. It was used mostly as a place for visitors to sign the guest register, though daughter Madeleine often hid in a small alcove in the room to read racy novels her mother disapproved of. Today, visitors can see the same leather-bound books in the same glass-fronted bookcases that Pedder himself purchased and arranged. When I've volunteered there, I've often stood alone in the room and wondered what kind of inspiration he got from all of those learned words. Was it worth possibly going to jail over?

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