George Eastman is a curious character in American history. The founder of Kodak and the creator of rolled film, Eastman brought photography to the masses, and in doing so changed the way perceive events. In fact, ubiquitous photographs, some have suggested, have changed entirely the way we visually perceive and interact with the world.
His home in Rochester, NY which is now a museum managed by the International Museum of Photography and Film, is itself a testament to all facets of a man so interesting, so driven and so philanthropic as to make him quite unique amongst the industrialists of his era.
When you first arrive at the house, you notice immediately the precision of his gardens which are today restored to their original design. It is said that the gardeners were required to count every bud, on each bush, to provide weekly flower yield reports. This attention to detail, in something as infinitesimal as his garden’s appearance, illustrates Eastman’s obsession with order.
Following your garden walk, you enter the back of the house at Eastman’s dining room. Wonderfully ornate and designed in part to mimic the White House dining room, this room gives you the first insight into Eastman’s truly immense wealth, but also his specific hands-on approach to his home’s design. Of course, this was not uncommon amongst industrialists, but Eastman paid attention to every blueprint, every outline, every plan to ensure it was up to his high expectations.
Along the velvet ropes to the conservatory you come upon an overgrowth of rare plants and trees grown to copy a tropical paradise. Along one wall is an enormous exact replica of an original elephant bust trumpeting above the room. The elephant is a lasting memory of Eastman the adventurer, a big game hunter who traveled thousands of miles to remote locations around the globe.
In addition, this was said to be one of favorite rooms where he would often eat his breakfast alone to live organ music played by his staff organist. The organist, each morning, would begin promptly at 7 a.m. as Eastman would enter the room, and he would judge the mood of his fussy boss before either slowing or speeding the pace of the day’s musical selections. Eating breakfast alone was a bright moment in the somewhat reclusive Eastman’s day, while he at times would have friends or business associates join him, he preferred to spend time alone.
Further into the home, you see the gilded-era-requisite grand staircase, but just off the billiards room where Eastman, or as his friends called him “G.E.” showed off his prized hunting trophies and assuredly a few great deals got closed, he was most at home in his library. The foundation has meticulously recreated the space and in this room you get the best understanding of Mr. Eastman’s love of learning. Entirely self-taught, Eastman spent hours collecting, cataloging and reading books on a wide array of topics, many of which led him to philanthropy, innovation and success.
Eastman never married, and his mother moved to the home soon after it was built, together with his tight-knit group of platonic female friends many outside his immediate circle questioned his sexuality. However, his staff often remarked that his head party hostess was his one true love who he often fawned over. They never married, but this relationship inspired him a great deal, and their conversations led to his development of the country’s first “community chest.” The community chest was a local fundraising organization that would later become the United Way.
Upstairs, down the hall from his earlier departed mother, was Eastman’s bedroom where, due to a debilitating spinal injury, he spent more and more of his time in solitude. On March 14, 1932 after meeting with friends after changing the terms of his will to give away his fortune to charity, he shot himself in the heart. He left only a simple note: “My work is done. Why wait?”
The home, like few we’ve visited, provides nearly perfect insight into its resident. You leave feeling you knew George Eastman, not as the industrialist, but as “G.E.” a doting friend, loyal son, self-taught innovator and generous philanthropist. This is a must not miss!