History Detective: Light Fixture Edition

Did you ever watch the show History Detectives on PBS? I loved the show; it is all about uncovering the story of an object.

As Associate Registrar for the Center, I am working with our Director Gregory Wittkopp and our Associate Curator Kevin Adkisson on an ambitious project. We are reviewing all fourteen of our cultural properties collections (over 9,000 objects), reviewing the data already on file and adding as much additional information about each object as we can. How do we do this, when the people who created, collected, or purchased the objects are no longer here? It requires being something of a history detective!

The collection we are currently working on is the Cultural Properties Collection at Thornlea. Thornlea was the home of George and Ellen Booth’s youngest son, Henry Scripps Booth, and his wife, Carolyn Farr Booth, from 1926 to 1988. It is filled with antiques, artwork, furnishings, and personal objects. In Cranbrook Archives, there are multiple helpful records about the home’s collections: insurance inventories, an index card file of objects created and maintained by Henry, and receipts for items purchased.

Light fixture over front door at Thornlea.

The one object I wanted to feature today is the unique light fixture over the front door to Thornlea. This custom and distinctive iron and glass fixture is important to the architectural character of the house, but I knew next to nothing about it. It appeared in early images of the house, so I knew it had been a part of the house from the earliest years, perhaps since the house was built.

Henry Scripps Booth peaks out the front door of Thornlea, circa 1935. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

To learn more about the fixture, I first looked at the insurance inventories and Henry’s index card file. Nothing there.

Next, I looked at the receipts under “Electrical” in the Henry Scripps and Carolyn Farr Booth Papers in Archives. Eureka!

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Going Green: LED Lightbulbs at our Historic Houses

Since it’s St. Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d talk about one way the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research is going green.IMG_7957In January 2014, there was a crisis among fans of incandescent light bulbs when the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 went into effect, banning the manufacture of incandescent 40- and 60- watt light bulbs. Some house museums were in a tizzy, and many purchased large stocks of incandescent bulbs to use in their historic fixtures with exposed bulbs—no one wants to see a distracting, spiraling fluorescent light bulb in a period room!

The feared depletion of our national stock of pretty light bulbs didn’t happen (there were lots of loopholes and legal challenges), but one intent of the ban—to force the lighting industry to make more efficient bulbs—was realized. Impossible just a few years ago, today there are energy efficient LED light bulbs that are completely satisfactory for use in exposed-bulb situations. After decades of using incandescent lighting, the Center has switched Saarinen House and parts of Cranbrook House over to LED.

LED, or light-emitting diode, bulbs are most praised for their energy savings, but being such an aesthetically minded place as Cranbrook, we have a few more concerns than the utility bill for our lighting:

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Maintaining the visual warmth of Saarinen House was vital; we wouldn’t have gone LED if it altered the aesthetic. Jim Haefner, photographer.

First is the color. When I told a coworker I was about to change the lightbulbs in George Booth’s Office in Cranbrook House to LED light bulbs, she was crestfallen. “They’re so blue and cold!” she lamented, something a lot of people fear with LED. It’s true, early LEDs were very blue and a far cry from the incandescent bulbs most people are used to (and prefer). But technology has changed, and now we have a range of light warmth to choose from. The spectrum of warmth is measured in kelvins, and incandescent bulbs are around 2400 K, while fluorescent tubes are 5000 K, and sunlight is 7000 K and up. We’ve chosen 2550 K bulbs for Cranbrook. As far as wattage goes, the lighting industry labels LEDs with their watt equivalents to incandescent, as that’s what we know. I used 25-watt incandescent equivalent bulbs in the office that actually use just 4 watts of power (and last, supposedly, 13+ years).

 

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From left: Incandescent bulb removed from Saarinen House fixtures; clear-style LED bulb used in exposed fixtures; LED bulb used in covered fixtures.

The next concern revolved around the look of the bulbs. You may be familiar with the energy efficient compact fluorescent bulb (CFLs) that have a spiral-type bulb—I don’t think anyone would want those in a chandelier. Even earlier LEDs were bulkier than standard incandescent bulbs because of the need for large conductors within the bulb to reduce heat gain—usually in the form a large white base between the glass and the screw threads. Today, you can buy a LED bulb in practically any shape or style with an internal conductor. The main difference between the LEDs we chose and the incandescent bulbs: when the bulb is off, the LED is a visible golden strip instead of a tiny metal filament, so you see a small yellow marking in the center of the bulb.

 

Beyond aesthetics and energy savings, there is the cost of the bulb itself. LEDs are getting constantly cheaper, but there’s a fairly big difference between the cheapest LEDs and the prettiest ones. Here at Cranbrook, when a bulb is not visible (for example, hidden by a solid lampshade), we’ve used cheaper LEDs in the same temperature and wattage as the fully clear bulbs we put in chandeliers and exposed fixtures. Either way, the energy savings should offset the costs within just a few years!

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Saarinen House aglow with LED bulbs inside and out, February 2017. Jim Haefner, photographer.

By switching to LED, we’re doing our part to help realize Cranbrook’s dedication to the environment laid out in the Cranbrook Educational Community’s most recent Strategic Plan; it states that “we commit to the well-being of future generations through our actions and behaviors.” Energy conservation is one simple way we’ve done this!

Kevin Adkisson, Center Collections Fellow

Special thanks to Assistant Registrar Leslie S. Mio for leading the LED Lightbulb conversion.

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