On Buildings and “The Last Days of Night”
Posted on January 31, 2020
It is 1888 and the engaging book, The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore opens with a vision of a workman installing electric lights on Broadway in New York, catching on fire and dying by electrocution. So begins this historical fiction that covers the war between Edison and Westinghouse over D/C and A/C currents and who would ultimately control the future of electricity. Soon to be a movie, this fascinating story accumulates with two closing events, the Chicago world’s fair when people really experienced the power of electric lights for the first time in their true blazing glory and the end of the long battle over control with the formation of General Electric in 1896.
These characters based on historical figures gripped me, and all through the book I thought of all the ways they have entered into popular culture and the many subliminal images I held surrounding them. Not wanting to break this spell, I waited until I was done with the book to research pictures and history of the real people. My curiosity also extended to the places these characters lived and worked.
The first character we encounter is Paul Cravath, a young lawyer in New York that will mediate the discrepancy between Edison and Westinghouse, and his lady friend the opera singer Agnes Huntington. Cravath ended up settling in Long Island, having 4 houses in total in the area–two of which burned. His fourth, and final, house was Still House designed by Bradley Delehanty in 1920.
In the novel, Cravath and Agnes were the friends and defenders of the eccentric and brilliant Nicolas Tesla. One of Tesla’s labs comes with quite a story, the Transmission tower at Tesla’s Science center at Wardenclyffe. He convinced his famous architect friend Stanford White to design the tower which ended up being his final project before he was shot to death in 1906 on the roof of the famed Madison Square Garden, a building he designed with McKim, Mead and White. His story was immortalized in two films, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, 1955 with Ray Milland and Ragtime in 1981 with Norman Mailer.
The battling parties in the story, Edison and Westinghouse had not only homes, but places to gather with inventors and engineers. Thomas Edison’s house Glenmont Estate in West Orange, New Jersey is now a park and contains restored houses and grounds. Doubling as a museum, the Glenmont Estate contains over 300,00 items of Edison’s and nearly 5 million documents of his experiments and patents.
Edison also was an investor and promoter of concrete building and started the Edison Portland Cement Company, which he ended up struggling to make successful for many years. One major commission before he folded his cement company was the original Yankee Stadium just a few years before the great depression.
Edison also kept a winter estate right next to Henry Ford in Fort Myers, Florida. Now preserved as a museum and gardens, it is a popular tourist destination.
Nearby in Pittsburg, Westinghouse lived at his property Solitude that now is a 10 acre public park named simply Westinghouse Park. Westinghouse did a lot of work with his engineers at this property–including Tesla and scientist William Thomson. In addition to the house he had a carriage house, laboratory, and natural gas derrick named “Old No. 1”.
A wonder not only of nature but also of electricity and architecture is the Niagara Hydroelectric Power project created by Westinghouse and Tesla. The only remaining building is the Adams Power Plant Transformer House. Constructed in 1895, this building is a National Historic Landmark.
In our lit up world, it is fantastic to think of the world of darkness that existed before electric lights illuminated our modern nights. The story in The Last Days of Night helps you inhabit this transitional world at the side of these historical characters, imagining their humanity through the many struggles it took to bring electric light into our homes and cities.