Bouncing Back to Life

Restoring the Florida laboratory where Thomas Edison sought a substitute for rubber

Edison
Edison Botanic Research Laboratory in Fort Myers, Fla.

Credit: Manfred Behr for Edison & Ford Winter Estates

In the final years of his life, Thomas Edison searched for an alternative source of rubber with the same burning intensity he'd demonstrated in pursuit of a reliable light bulb. The locus of his efforts was a site he called his "jungle," a lush waterfront corner of southwest Florida where he wintered with his wife, Mina, and eventually grew thousands of plants that played a crucial role in his experiments.

Now the facility where Edison conducted his studies is being restored to the way it looked prior to the inventor's death in 1931. The Edison Botanic Research Laboratory will be formally dedicated in February.

Edison first visited Fort Myers, Fla., then population 349, in 1885, identifying it as an ideal place to grow bamboo. (He believed bamboo fibers had potential as filaments for light bulbs.) The inventor bought 13.5 acres straddling a cattle road, mapped out research gardens for cultivating promising plants, and quickly converted the property into an invention factory.

Bamboo filaments never caught on with the American public. But Edison continued to escape to the estate during the cold months.  His good friend Henry Ford eventually purchased a house nearby.

Lab Restoration Initiated: June 2010

Estimated Date of Completion: February 2012

Total Cost: $850,000

Funders: HUD Economic Development Initiatives Grants; Edison & Ford Winter Estates, Inc.; Edison-Ford Winter Estates Foundation; The 1772 Foundation; State of Florida, Historical Resources Division Grant

Project Architect: Wiley Parker, Parker/Mudgett/Smith Architects

In 1927, he and Ford teamed with Harvey Firestone to seek a commercially viable domestic alternative to rubber, essential for everything from Firestone's tires to Edison's phonograph. Together, they established the Edison Botanic Research Corporation and, in 1928, built a laboratory where Edison conducted rubber research surrounded by assistants, a secretary to type his notes, and a glassblower to modify labware on demand. 

"It's a magical building," says Chris Pendleton, president and CEO of the Edison & Ford Winter Estates. "This little place that [local residents] thought was Edison's getaway actually was a unique tropical research facility."

Mina Edison bequeathed the lab and its surrounding estate—which   included a 6,000-square-foot residence and guest house, plus the research fields and gardens—to the city of Fort Myers in 1947. The nearby Ford Estate was incorporated in 1988. 

For almost 50 years, officials treated the prized laboratory as "a city facility, rather than as a historic landmark," Pendleton says. An asphalt parking lot covered the former site of the research gardens, and the ground-level laboratory was elevated and placed atop concrete piers. The prevailing philosophy was one of deferred maintenance: "Fix it when it's an issue," says Pendleton.

By 2003, the property required emergency intervention. Termites had turned structural corner posts at Edison's house into hollow shells. Invasive trees were growing up through the porch. The Edison & Ford Winter Estates board, Edison-Ford Winter Estates Foundation, and the city of Fort Myers launched a $10 million effort to rescue the residences. The National Trust recognized that effort with the 2008 Trustee Emeritus Award for Excellence in the Stewardship of Historic Sites.

Bringing the lab and surrounding gardens back to their 1929 state was an $850,000 continuation of the restoration project. 

Edison's quest for rubber

The soaring cost of rubber during World War I convinced Edison, Ford, and Firestone that an independent source of latex was vital for America’s future. To that end, the three men put up $25,000 each and created the Edison Botanic Research Corporation.

Edison planted a total of 2,200 plant species at the Fort Myers estate and tested 17,000 plant samples before settling on the ubiquitous herb goldenrod as the most viable alternative to the famous Brazilian rubber tree. He even developed his own latex-rich goldenrod strain, Solidago edisoniana, which grew 12 to 14 feet tall.

He received his 1,090th patent for the process of extracting latex from goldenrod. Work on the project continued at the laboratory after Edison’s death, but the Department of Agriculture relocated the entire operation to Georgia in 1936. —C.H.

One of the biggest problems preservation experts faced at the lab was encroaching vegetation. A banyan sapling planted in 1925 had grown into one of the world's largest specimens, with almost 400 aerial roots snaking down like a tangle of trunks. "It's like this progressive army," says Pendleton, "and it's marching toward all the structures around it."

Remediation required cutting away the roots under the building and installing a barrier to prevent further intrusion from the prized tree. Asbestos had to be removed, and lingering arsenic, used to preserve plant specimens, forced the teams to treat the building for hazardous materials.

Then came the work to stabilize the building's foundation and supports. Crews did not have to deal with the termite issues that plagued Edison's home, probably because the inventor built his lab of native pine instead of New England white spruce, but workers did find wood rot. They also restored or replaced siding and refurbished the windows, most with original 1920s glass. Then they removed an asphalt roof built by the city and installed a metal roof similar to the original. Soon, Pendleton says, "We're going to be tearing out the asphalt parking lot and restoring portions of that early garden."

Wiring inside the lab required updating, so the restoration team took the opportunity to re-create the original lighting scheme—an ingenious system of hanging lamps that could be raised or lowered by sliding a cord through a wooden toggle. "It hasn't had that lighting in years," Pendleton says.

When it is dedicated in February, Edison's lab will appear as it did 80 years ago, down to the hand-cranked coffee mills and the buckets of stones his researchers used to grind plant material for testing. As Curator Alison Giesen says, "It will look like the workers have just stepped out for a brief moment."

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