Chris Pendleton will retire from her position as president and CEO of the Edison-Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers at the end of this year.
“I am not retiring,” she insists, adding emphatically, “I’m staying active in the field.”
No one who knows her would ever dream otherwise.
The Houses Are Falling Down
When Mina Edison, the widow of Thomas Alva Edison, died in 1947, she left the Edison estate to the city of Fort Myers. For the next 54 years, “The Edison Home” was a tourist attraction managed by the Fort Myers city council. Proceeds from ticket sales were used, as one News-Press reporter put it, “to beef up city coffers.” With only meager funds allocated from the city maintenance budget for upkeep, the estate’s buildings suffered almost irrevocable decay. By 2001, the homes, declared Mayor Jim Humphrey, were “in danger of falling down.” When the Charles Edison Foundation discovered the criminal neglect of this historic property, the ordure hit the proverbial fan.
A private citizens’ group of prominent city businessmen formed to address the problem. Their goal was to affect the transfer of estate management to a self-supporting, non-profit organization. Those opposed, i.e., the city council, would not give up management because they were not willing to give up the income from this popular “attraction.” Those in favor argued that the estate should be run like an historic site rather than be relegated to the status of a public works project.
On October 1, 2001, the director of the Edison-Ford Winter Estates retired and the new director of the Imaginarium out on MLK, Jr. Boulevard stepped in as interim manager. Her name was Chris Pendleton.
A native of Brooklyn, New York, transplanted in her teen years to Palm Beach County, Florida, Chris Pendleton was a graduate of Florida State University and a former school teacher, who had transitioned successfully from managing classrooms to managing museums and historic sites in Virginia and the Carolinas for nearly 30 years before her arrival in Fort Myers. She had only recently accepted responsibility for the Imaginarium, when Mayor Jim Humphrey urgently requested a meeting.
Fort Myers needed a professional to steer the Edison-Ford Estates through the mine field of the restoration and privatization process, and Chris Pendleton seemed to qualify for the job. If she failed, the Charles Edison Foundation would claim the artifacts and archives before rats and rain did. Risking his political career in his fight to privatize the estates, Mayor Humphrey gambled that Chris Pendleton was the one person who could save them.
He was correct.
Chris Pendleton’s attraction to the Edison-Ford Estates was visceral. It was as if the current of energy that Edison had produced to electrify his laboratory had surged through her, sparking a passion that would shock this moldering place back to vibrant life, transfusing the rotting timbers and the neglected gardens with resurgent life.
“I knew the first time I saw this place that it was magical,” Pendleton says today. “It was beautiful, and the history—it…felt like me.”
Her sense of belonging was, perhaps, a subliminal recognition of her kinship with the men memorialized here; the subjects Pendleton had taught in school were math and physics. The pull to these inventors, therefore, was magnetic, irresistible. And with its experimental gardens, its laboratory and museum, here was, or could be, a magnificent classroom for an educator.
The lives of Edison and Ford resonated with her own also in their approach to science and invention as a business. Above all else, Edison and Ford were consummate businessmen and so was and is Chris Pendleton. Out of chaos she brings order. And like Edison and Ford, out of the insoluble, she invents solutions. Which is to say that Chris Pendleton can pull a rabbit out of any hat.
Pendleton’s priority, of course, was restoration, one building at a time. While her allies among city leaders worked to raise the money to pay for it, she worked to assemble a team of experts who would restore the buildings in strict accordance with the preservation and restoration guidelines established by the U.S. Department of the Interior. It took months, with News-Press cameras and note-takers involving the entire city in the process.
She knew what she had to do. She had to run the place like a business. It had to make money. Even while restoring the house and gardens, she had to generate revenue. Proof of Pendleton’s left-brain/right-brain genius is that, instead of losing money by closing the sections under renovation, she made the restoration part of the attraction. In fact, in 2005, she managed to have HGTV feature the restoration on their program, “Restore America: A Salute to Preservation.”
But ticket sales for tours was not enough. They must develop programs and events. They must facilitate funding by obtaining recognition from the appropriate national organizations and accreditation from powerful, national museum associations. They must raise money from museum memberships. And build a professional staff. And assemble an engaged and supportive board of directors. And build a seawall to reclaim eroding riverfront property. And hire a CPA. And pick up the Slurpee cup a workman left sitting on Mrs. Edison’s front porch.
Incredibly, for the first 2 ½ years as EFWE director, Pendleton was also at the helm of the Imaginarium, but in early 2004, she left that position to channel her energy exclusively to the resurrection of the Edison-Ford estates.
In 2006, the transition from an underfinanced, city-run tourist attraction to a privately managed, multi-million-dollar’ non-profit business was complete.
After restoration, the priority was to develop programming. Pendleton’s educator instinct surfaced. At every historic site or museum she has directed, Pendleton’s mission has been the education of children. How does one ensure the future of an historic site except by educating those to whose care it will someday be entrusted?
They began with day camps for grade-school children. Day camps evolved into homeschool programs in science and engineering. Classes and programs multiplied, expanding to include history and the arts. Today, the EFWE children and adult education programming is collectively known as S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Math). In and out of season, the number, variety and quality of the classes, events and programs available daily at the Edison-Ford estates is astonishing. The most recent addition to the continually improving exhibits is the Smithsonian Spark!Lab, an interactive display of science and invention created for EFWE by the Smithsonian Institution.
To build a regenerative business requires a clear vision of the future. Thomas Edison had it. Henry Ford had it. Chris Pendleton has it.
“If I’m proud of anything it’s of getting us to the point that now we can talk about what’s coming up. We’re solvent financially, the houses are restored, the garden’s restored (even though Irma gave us a little haircut), the programs are developing and now the sky’s the limit. We have a master site plan for when the city begins working on the connector from 41 to downtown. A roundabout is planned at Virginia Avenue—it’s been proposed that it be named Edison Avenue—and Edison Avenue will connect with 41 at the roundabout to downtown. I think one of the greatest opportunities the city has is to capture our visitors more effectively. Right now there’s no clear way to send people downtown from here. We also have to get a transit system that hooks to our parking lot.”
Plans are underway also for new administration and education facilities. “Eventually,” teacher Pendleton declares, “if we are going to do what we should be doing, we need an education building. We need real classrooms.”
“Edison-Ford is in a great position now, poised to go into the future. I don’t need to be here,” Pendleton assures us with perhaps more confidence than we feel, “but I’m not retiring, I’m staying active in the field, and I would like to be involved in some way with seeing the master plan through.”
The EFWE Family
Pendleton did not want this story to be only about her, but about her staff, whom she credits with the success of EFWE, Inc.
“I am really proud of them to a one. We have nothing but professionals here. One of my jobs has been to help people grow. TDC Guest First classes for certification in different aspects of hospitality and tourism development is compulsory for staff members, and we have monthly training for volunteers in history and botanicals. Everybody working in education or as a curator has a degree in history.”
Pendleton also wishes to acknowledge the business and government leaders of Fort Myers who, through the years, have supported and assisted her efforts on behalf of the city’s most beloved property. The public-private partnership and engagement in the future of this historic site, based upon mutual respect, is the very foundation upon which the EFWE has been built.
In just over 10 years since privatization, the EFWE receives one quarter million visitors and generates over $6 million in revenue annually, of which fully one half million is dedicated to the continual restoration of the property. It has received awards of excellence in restoration from the National Registry and from National Garden Clubs, Inc., and its botanical lab is the first site in Florida to be designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society.
The world is indebted to Chris Pendleton, the EFWE board of directors and the entire family of EFWE staff, volunteers and members and, not least of all, to the progressive leadership of Fort Myers for the preservation and continual development of this “magical” national treasure.