Nikola Tesla Articles
Tesla, a Little-Recognized Genius, Left Mark in Shoreham
It's a safe bet that relatively few people on Long Island have heard of Nikola Tesla, the world-shaking electrical genius whose invention of polyphase alternating current made him, more than anyone, the man who electrified the 20th century.
Even fewer people are likely to know that Tesla did some of his most visionary work in a laboratory built for him in Shoreham exactly a century ago by Stanford White, the Gilded Age architect who was a friend and admirer.
And it would be a surprise to almost everyone that the 94-by-94-foot laboratory, known as Wardenclyffe and envisioned by Tesla as a prototype for a stupendous world communications and wireless electric system, is still standing and in relatively good shape only yards from Route 25A, a major state highway.
Today the laboratory's red-brick facade is barely visible through overgrown foliage from a fence around the 16.2-acre property. The unused site, now owned by Agfa-Gevaert, the Belgian photographic film giant, is closed to the public. It is undergoing a state-ordered cleanup for soil and groundwater contamination linked to Peerless Photo Products, a previous owner that was acquired by Agfa.
A security guard who never heard of Nikola Tesla turned away visitors on a recent afternoon. The property, he said, was unused and sealed shut while the owners decided what to do with it.
Hanging in the balance, Tesla historians and preservationist said, is the fate of the last intact Tesla workplace anywhere in the world and a gem of Long Island history too long left in the rough.
“This is an extremely important landmark,” said Barbara Van Liew, an architectural historian from St. James. “By all means, it should be preserved. Tesla invented a lot of the things we use today, and he doesn't get much credit.”
In perfecting the alternating-current power system now used around the world, Tesla prevailed over Thomas Edison, who believed in an inferior direct-current system and strove in vain to prove that alternating current was unsafe.
It was Tesla, not Marconi, who invented radio. He also harnessed Niagara Falls for hydropower and invented, among many other things, a bladeless steam turbine, the first remote-controlled torpedoes and devices that had applications in missile defense and computers, long after his death in 1943.
Now the race is on to preserve Tesla's legacy and White's architecture in Shoreham.
Two groups, the Tesla Wardenclyffe Project, a national organization based in Colorado, and Friends of Science East in Shoreham, are hoping to have the site listed on the state and national registers of historic places. Their plans also call for establishing a Nikola Tesla Science Center in the laboratory building, where Tesla memorabilia would be put on display.
The groups are asking Agfa to donate the site to the Town of Brookhaven, where Shoreham is situated, to clear the way for the historic listings and the science center.
But Agfa has been noncommittal, and the standstill is likely to persist until the environmental remediation is complete. The State Department of Environmental Conservation, which is overseeing the cleanup, recently asked for more testing for possible contamination. It is not clear when all work will be done.
“At this point everything is between Agfa and the state,” said Gary Peterson, a spokesman for the Tesla Wardenclyffe Project in Breckenridge, Colo. “But Agfa has let us know they are aware of the historic significance of the Wardenclyffe site and that they did not intend to do anything untoward.”
Jane Alcorn, the president of Friends of Science East, said a recent study done by Shoreham residents envisioned the Tesla site as a center for the hamlet and a place to teach children about science.
“Not that many towns on Long Island have a Stanford White building,” she said. “For that alone it's worth preserving.” Charla Bolton of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities in Cold Spring Harbor agreed. “There is no question, it is worthy of preservation,” she said.
But the groups and others familiar with the property are concerned that Agfa may decide to sell to a developer once the cleanup is over.
The company, which has regional offices in Ridgefield Park, N.J., said in a statement that it would consider all options. “Agfa has had many offers on the site, ranging from developers to Tesla-related societies,” said the statement by Robert Hoffmann, director of general services and facilities for the Agfa Corporation in Ridgefield Park. But, he added, the property is not now under contract or listed with any broker.
Mr. Hoffmann said that the site was structurally sound and that company officials were aware of its historic significance.
The company declined to support listing it on state and national registers of historic places. Once the property is sold or donated, applying for that designation would be up to the new owner, Mr. Hoffmann said.
As long ago as 1967, the Town of Brookhaven named the laboratory property a historic site. But no formal application has been made for the state designation, a precursor to the federal designation.
James P. Warren, a historic preservation program analyst for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said owner consent was usually required for a listing on the state register and always required for the national register. He said the property was eligible for both. Merely being associated with White is significant, he said.
Wardenclyffe may have been White's last creation. In 1906 he was shot and killed by the jealous husband of a former chorus girl, Evelyn Nesbit, at the original Madison Square Garden, which he designed.
Tesla, born in 1856 in Croatia, lived in Manhattan hotels for most of his life. He was already an acclaimed inventor when he arrived in Shoreham in 1902. He was fleeing Manhattan, where his celebrity had begun to interfere with work in his laboratory on Houston Street, for the solitude of the Long Island countryside. The new laboratory was financed with $150,000 from J. P. Morgan, who expected to make a fortune on Tesla's work.
Somewhere in the undergrowth at the Shoreham site are remnants of the concrete footings for the 187-foot radio and electrical transmission tower that a White associate, J. D. Crow, erected for Tesla in 1903.
The octagonal wood-frame tower, perched over a 120-foot underground shaft, was the core of a generating system designed to use the earth and the upper reaches of the atmosphere as conductors of electrical impulses that would reach around the globe.
From 1903 until it was razed in 1917, the never-quite-completed tower rose like a giant mushroom over eastern Long Island and could be seen from across the Sound in Connecticut.
Tesla's experiments faltered when Morgan declined to invest more money. Tesla struggled on, mortgaging the property to raise cash. But by 1915 he was out of money, and the property went into foreclosure. He remained convinced that success had been at hand. It is a simple feat of scientific electrical engineering, only expensive, he wrote. Blind, faint-hearted, doubting world.