On quiet sunny days in the GE Realty Plot, you can almost feel the history of the house at 1132 Adams Road talking to you.
Close your eyes and you can imagine 6-year-old Verner Alexanderson getting into a dark Cadillac with two strangers, or a much happier occasion when the family, with Verner back in the fold, huddled together to watch the first home reception of a television broadcast ever in the U.S. There was another time when the house owner, a candidate for the Nobel Prize, walked out of his backyard over to Stratford Road to congratulate a General Electric colleague who did win the award.
From 1911 until his death in 1975, Ernst Alexanderson, a GE scientist and pioneer in both radio and television, lived in the white, two-story structure at 1132 Adams Road. For the past 35 years, however, it’s been home sweet home to Doug and June Griset.
“It was a great place to raise a family, and we never really treated it like a museum piece,” said Doug Griset, a retired family court judge who is now a part-time appelate attorney working on behalf of children. “We don’t even have a plaque on the house anywhere. We always thought of it as a home, not some famous place.”
Suited Alexanderson well
Griset, a 1960 Mohonasen High graduate, and his wife, a Buffalo native, didn’t even know who Alexanderson was when they bought the place in 1975, a few weeks after he died at the age of 97.
“It’s a modest home compared to most of the homes in the Realty Plot, and we’ve speculated on why someone coming from Sweden like Alexanderson would choose this house,” said June Griset. “I think he probably had his choice of the other mansions, but he picked this one because there weren’t too many windows and it was well-insulated. This was the kind of house a man from Sweden would pick.”
According to Bruce Maston’s book about the GE Realty Plot, “Enclave of Elegance,” while the house is built in the Queen Anne style it also offers characteristics from the Colonial Revival, Georgian and Italianate Victorian periods.
“The house looks a bit like a farmhouse of the 1880s, and it would appear to be a creation of a skilled, older carpenter,” wrote Maston in 1982. “An apt description of the total effect is ‘quaint.’ As Dr. Alexanderson was not given to material excess, this diminutive house nestled on Adams Road suited him well.”
The Grisets got to meet both Alexanderson’s third wife, Thyra, and a daughter, Gertrude Young, when they purchased the home. It was built in 1902 by the Schenectady Realty Co. and while someone may have been living there before 1911, Alexanderson and Griset have been the only homeowners.
The first thing visitors see when they enter the house is a large wooden desk that belonged to Alexanderson. The Grisets haven’t moved it.
“When Thyra left she wanted to downsize so she couldn’t take a lot of the furniture, especially the big stuff like the desk,” said June Griset. “I think she moved into an apartment down by the Schenectady Museum and didn’t need that much. The fee was very nominal, so we bought some of the furniture.”
The Grisets did have the opportunity to sit and have a long chat with Young, who died in 2005 at the age of 90.
“She came and visited us and filled us in on all the old stories from her childhood,” said Doug Griset, who also met Rose, the Alexandersons’ longtime maid. “They had a camp on Lake George she talked about, and fortunately the kidnapping had a happy ending, so she also talked about that.”
Son kidnapped, but rescued
Verner Alexanderson’s ordeal only lasted five days in May of 1923, but his kidnapping was news all over the U.S. His father, called the “father of television and radio” by no less an authority than Guglielmo Marconi, made radio broadcasts pleading for help locating the boy, and it worked. A man in the town of Theresa near the St. Lawrence River heard Alexanderson, saw two men with a young boy fitting Verner’s description, and contacted local police, leading to the boy’s release.
Alexanderson had already earned his master’s in engineering when he arrived in the U.S. from Sweden in 1901 determined to meet Charles Steinmetz and land a job with The General Electric Co. In 1909, he married his first wife, Edith B. Lewin, a native of Rome, Oneida County. And when she died in 1912, Alexanderson married Gertrude Robart. He had all four of his children — three daughters and Verner — with his first two wives, and then he married again in 1949, this time to Thyra Oxchufwud, a year after Gertrude passed away.
With more than 340 patents to his credit, Alexanderson proved to be one of GE’s most prolific scientists.
“There were several people working on it, but Alexanderson was probably the one who did the most to make home television a reality,” said Chris Hunter, senior archivist at the Schenectady Museum. “He also built these huge alternators to generate radio signals, speed up communications and help bring about the end of World War I.”
Alexanderson was also the leading force behind the first ever “fax” machine, and nearly 30 years after he gave the first demonstration of a home reception of a television broadcast, he was involved in the development of color television.
Father of Radio and television
“The [Federal Communications Commission] declared him the father of radio and television, but notice, we don’t call him the inventor,” said John Harnden, a General Electric retiree who knew and worked with Alexanderson. “So many people contributed different pieces to the invention and it was very complex. But he was the only guy who made the whole system work. He wasn’t that well known because he didn’t want the publicity. After his son was kidnapped, he told GE he didn’t want any more publicity for anything he did.”
Unlike his colleague and neighbor Irving Langmuir, a physicist and chemist and the 1932 Nobel Prize winner, Alexanderson was “only” an engineer.
“If you were an engineer then you didn’t get the same publicity as a chemist or physicist,” said Harnden. “He wasn’t even an electrical engineer because there wasn’t any such field to speak of before Steinmetz began his research. And that’s why ‘Alex’ wanted to come to Schenectady, to work with Steinmetz.”
“Alex” was what Alexanderson’s friends and colleagues called him. Never was he referred to as Ernst, and while his doctorates were all honorary (Union College, Uppsala University and the University of Stockholm), many people called him doctor. Richard DiCristofaro, owner of The Wedgeway Barber Shop in downtown Schenectady, began using that title to address Alexanderson when he started cutting his hair in 1962.
“It was a real feather in our cap to have a man as famous and as brilliant as him patronize our establishment,” said DiCristofaro, who went to Alexanderson’s house in his later years to cut his hair. “We loved having him as a client.”
Unfortunately, Alexanderson suffered from hearing loss and that prevented DiCristofaro from developing a close relationship with his customer.
“He was awfully hard of hearing, and if there was a way to turn his hearing aid down, he didn’t know it,” said DiCristofaro. “It effected the whole room because he would take them out and they made this loud whistling, screeching sound. He couldn’t hear it but everybody else did. Unfortunately, we could not communicate with him at all. He’d come in and nod, I would nod at him, and then when he left he would nod and I would say goodbye and nod back to him. It was like that the whole time I knew him.”
Hearing aids weren’t the only thing Alexanderson had trouble with.
“The story goes that he couldn’t open a can of soup,” said June Griset. “That’s why they had the maid, Rose, and we also heard that his second wife Gertrude used to have people stationed along his way to work — he walked two miles to GE every day — to make sure that he was dressed properly. Sometimes he would just leave the house with the wrong clothes on.”
“He was absent-minded,” said Harnden, “but if you turned out incredible work the GE management didn’t interfere, and he was amazing. They said, ‘He could get the money,’ which meant that when you were in the laboratory you were competing with other projects for money. If you failed or faltered, you didn’t get the money again. His record was so good the management kept on believing in him.”
‘A delightful man’
After Thrya Alexanderson moved out of the house on Adams Road she eventually left Schenectady and split time between Lake George and West Palm Beach, Fla. She died in December of 1993. Thyra had three children from a previous marriage when she married Alexanderson, and one of them is Elizabeth A. Smith, who splits her time between Bolton Landing and Florida. She was a frequent visitor to the house at 1132 Adams Road, and remembers her stepfather as a loving but somewhat eccentric man.
“Yes, we called him the absent-minded professor, but he took it very light-heartedly,” said Smith. “He was very polite and very even-tempered. He was a delightful person to be around and always seemed to have a smile on his face.”
Smith remembers hearing the stories about Alexanderson walking to work each day. As he got older, however, he started driving the family automobile to work and like his walks, those trips also created some excitement in the city.
“Every time he came to the intersection of State and Erie, the cops would stop traffic coming both ways and he would just drive right on through,” said Smith. “If there were any slight altercations he would just pull money out of his wallet, pay for the damage and ask the other person not to report it.”