Wednesday, June 2, 1999
We hadn’t intended to go to Rochester. But one problem with driving through paradise is there are no motels. So we spent the night in a dim corner of the city George Eastman built. You know, Eastman Kodak—a made-up name it seems, possibly inspired by bears.
I had to pay for our room in Motel 6—yep, we’d slunk low again—through a thick plate glass window. “Why?” I asked, trying to make conversation with the Outer Limits desk clerk. Lobbies had never been barricaded before.
“We got robbed last week.”
Nice. It also explained the prison halls. Though after that, dinner—almost Buffalo Wings at Hooters, but we couldn’t face the… noise—and breakfast—at a strangely Pentecostal diner— seemed ordinary. Still, the best thing about Rochester was the unexpected Eastman House. Eastman School of Music’s there too, though it wouldn’t have been without George.
The mansion looked terrific. As it should have, since it just had millions of dollars pumped into it. Eastman was a strange man, brilliant and varied: he played concert piano, shot elephants in Africa, idolized his mom, and founded M.I.T. By his death, in 1932, he’d given away over one hundred million pre-inflation dollars, preferring to see the good work his fortune could do while he was still alive. But he gave away so much, there was nothing left to preserve his name.
Almost immediately, the mansion went to the University of Rochester, serving as its president’s home for fifteen years. Though with the Depression, then the War, the university couldn’t keep up even this small, ten acre, estate. So in 1947 it was ceded to New York. Those bureaucrats created George Eastman House, Inc, ironically underfunded.
For the next forty years, the corporation stressed archives over display, and the increasingly-battered rooms were primarily used for storage. That’s especially tricky when most of your hoard is possibly-explosive silver nitrate negatives. Finally, in 1989, someone noticed how nice the house once had been, and set out to rescue it.
First, came landmark status—easy, since in his lifetime Eastman had been so generous. Next, restoration. This wouldn’t have been possible without three things: First, tons of cash. Next, public funding for a proper museum—to get all those ticking negatives out of the bedrooms. Finally, the fact that Eastman had taken pictures of seemingly every inch of his house—well, he was a photographer. Today, visitors can walk through seven huge, almost freshly-built rooms, the smaller thirty being kept for offices.
The public space is amazing—all those details. The formal gardens have been restored too, carefully recreated after being rudely leveled and sodded. And though the house is largely tasteful, Eastman had his Hearst-like indulgences: on discovering he’d made the conservatory just a wee bit narrow, he chopped the whole back off his house and moved it out ten feet.
The new museum takes up at least as much land as the mansion, though has surprisingly few galleries, emphasis still being on storage and preservation. Our audio-guide further claimed that bunkers of rotting negatives remain, some crammed in what seventy years ago had been a barn. Oddly, what’s on display is very familiar: Marilyn Monroe, for example, again using sex to support foundations. It made me wonder how many other images we all have jammed in our heads, with little idea how they first got there.
. The thing I liked best was an alcove seemingly aimed at bored kids, and featuring instructions on how to treat your family photos: Don’t stick ’em in the basement or the attic. Don’t cram ’em in shoeboxes under your bed. These little squares of paper are possibly your best bid for immortality. So book ’em, label ’em, and pass ’em on to the most reliable person in your family.
Don’t will them to the Eastman House. They already got tons.
Of course, there’s a gift shop, selling further glossies of Monroe, Lamar, and Grable. Shirtless pics of Peck and Lancaster too, though I saw few newer images—say, semi-naked Hip-Hop stars. Maybe they’re what older people want to avoid. And almost everyone visiting seemed on Social Security.
“Is winter really that bad?” I heard one pensioner ask a young woman behind a counter. He was buying a book on gardens.
“Oh, yeah,” she grinned. “I live on a farm, maybe twenty miles from here. Last winter the snow got so bad I had to stay in town.”
Not encouraging. Even worse, the area averages two hundred days a year of clouds. Tucson Tom absorbed this, bought some pig cards, then moved on.
During the hour we were gone, the dog had been tied to a tree—probably recently restored, but we couldn’t have known that. She may even have stayed most of the time. Though when we got back, her water dish was there. And the bone she’d been bribed with. And a chunk of her leash. But dog-o had vamoosed.
Unlike homey Ironwood, Michigan, Rochester is a city, with a four-lane truck route running right past the museum Tom took off down the sidewalk. I scrambled for the wooden whistle, already picturing a flattened Wily Coyote—not on sale in the gift shop. If anything happened, Tom would be equally floored.
I blew the whistle. Tom yelled the dog’s silly name. We looked liked cartoon characters ourselves, zipping all over the place.
Amazingly, she came. Intact.
“She was coming even before you blew the whistle,” Tom told me after the devil had been reharnessed. “When she heard it, she practically ran me down.”
The whistle was not going to my friend’s son. Not till the escape hound was safely home in Tom’s backyard.