The House That George Built August 25 2009, 0 Comments

A high school drop out at the age of 14, George Eastman built an empire. What he took a lifetime to build; others have taken a much shorter time to destroy.

Forced to find a way to support his family after the death of his father, George Eastman began his career as a messenger boy, an office boy and later a junior clerk at the Rochester Savings Bank. He studied accounting. But it was photography that captured Eastman’s interest and he began experimenting with emulsions and formulas for making dry plates. He also sought a way to make many plates in a short amount of time. Eastman wanted to come up with a simpler process for photographic documentation. These experiments were the beginning of the creation of what was once the great Eastman Kodak Company.

A small company which made and sold photographic plates grew to be the most recognizable icon in photography and film in the world. Kodak is a perfect example of how to brand a company. Kodak’s long time slogan, “You press the button. We do the rest.” became synonymous with the Kodak camera, that yellow box of film recognizable at a glance. Eastman is responsible for creating the Eastman School of Music. He developed and implemented a plan to create dental programs and a medical school at the University of Rochester. Strong Memorial Hospital was also a project of Mr. Eastman. He gave millions to MIT and The Rochester Institute of Technology. Eastman gave his employees one third of his personal stock. At one point, Kodak employed conservatively 60,000 in the city of Rochester alone.

So what happened?? In addition to the usual mismanagement of corporate CEO’s and upper management, the idea of what Eastman Kodak was and what it should become was replaced by egocentric notions of what the CEO’s wanted to create. My answer to that has always been, “Then build your own company. Don’t take over someone else's!” I watched this viable company deteriorate over many CEO’s until piece by piece parts were sold off, some divisions that should have never been bought or created in the first place. Until, even as of late, buildings in Kodak Park have been sold off and some demolished.

Since I no longer live in the area, I haven’t really recapped all of this in some time. But it all came rushing back on me as I headed north this past weekend to photograph the George Eastman House on East Avenue in Rochester, New York. I was stunned when I drove right passed the mansion. Never did I dream that scraggly bushes would be allowed to sit in front of the horseshoe shaped driveway, blocking the first floor of the house, masking the grandeur and view from the front of the property. From the side of the house, single unit air conditioners sag from third floor windows. The paint is chipping. The gardens are no longer pristine. My respect for Mr. Eastman caused me to pause for a long time. What would he think? How would he react to seeing his house as I am seeing it today? I recalled several winters ago taking a tour of the house in February when 2000 tulips were brought in from Holland as they have been for decades just like when Mr. Eastman lived there. I wondered what the inside was looking like these days.

I am certain that a fall in contributions to the arts is a factor creating limited resources. The arts are always hit first in a bad economy. However, I fail to see how not maintaining the Eastman House in all of its grandeur will bring in new visitors and members. Additionally, the Eastman House holds one of the world’s largest collections of photographic equipment. I see the year 2710, when humans are gone but the equipment is perfectly preserved in the Eastman House’s temperature controlled volts. Why not use the resources it has to share the world of photographic history with exhibits that go to schools, colleges and other museums hence, generating income for the Eastman House. I guess I just don’t get it. But that is Kodak’s history of the past several decades, a lack of innovation, much with personal agenda. Every time they should have turned right, they turned left! It has damaged the company beyond repair now employing less than 12,000.

That is what has happened to The House That George Built! Mr. Eastman, visionary, artist, philanthropist, would roll over in his grave if he had one.