Back in 2012, a crowdfunding effort on Indigogo successfully raised the funds necessary to purchase the Wardenclyffe Tower site on Long Island, New York, where Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla once tried to build an ambitious wireless transmission station. The goal was to raise additional funds to build a $20 million Tesla Science Center there, with a museum, an educational center, and a technological innovation program. The nonprofit group behind the project finally broke ground this April after years of basic restoration work—only to experience a devastating setback last week, two days before Thanksgiving, when a fire broke out.
Over 100 firefighters from 17 local departments responded and battled the flames throughout the night, as residual embers led to two additional outbreaks. One firefighter sustained bruised ribs after falling off a ladder, but there were no other injuries or fatalities. Once the blaze was extinguished, the TSC group called in their engineers to assess the damage and make recommendations for repairs. While an investigation is ongoing as to the cause of the fire, Fire Chief Sean McCarrick said during a press conference on Tuesday, November 28, that they had ruled out arson. According to project architect Mark Thaler, there was nothing flammable in the lab that could have caused the fire, although the back buildings had wood-frame roofs.
The original brick building, designed by Stanford White, is still standing, although there is considerable damage to the structure of the roof, steel girders, chimney, cupola, and a portion of a wall. Some elements have been irreparably destroyed, but fortunately all museum artifacts in TSC’s collection were stored offsite. The most pressing concern is that water from the firehoses saturated the brick walls, according to Thaler, since the upcoming colder winter temperatures could freeze that moisture and cause the brick work to break apart and collapse. The engineers have also recommended adding strategic wall supports to both the interior and exterior to shore up the structure.
All of this comes with a hefty price tag: $3 million for immediate remediation to seal the roof and dry the building in order to stave off further damage. The building was insured, but that insurance won’t come close to covering the cost. The TSC group has set up a 60-day Indiegogo campaign to raise those funds, which is separate from the $14 million it had already raised toward their targeted $20 million goal. “The best way to help right now is to donate if you can,” said TSC Executive Director Marc Alessi. “We’ve never needed it more. We need to secure this lab, stop the water intrusion and future damage. And then we need to complete this project.”
New York State Senator Anthony Palumbo was among the local dignitaries on hand for the press conference. He reminded those gathered that Tesla’s own lab—the fourth floor of a building at 33-35 South Fifth Avenue in Manhattan—had burned down in March 1895, devastating the inventor. “I am in too much grief to talk,” Tesla told The New York Times at the time. “The work of half my lifetime, very nearly: all my mechanical instruments and scientific apparatus, that it has taken years to perfect, swept away in a fire that lasted only an hour or two. How can I estimate the loss in mere dollars and cents? Everything is gone. I must begin over again.”
Tesla nonetheless persevered and set up a new lab to continue his research. The TSC group and its backers have vowed to do the same, although the completion schedule will now be delayed. A holiday tree-lighting event will be held as planned at the site on December 2. “Buildings burn down and can then be rebuilt,” said John Gaiman, deputy county executive for Suffolk County. “The ideas behind them, the person, the history, the narrative that was created over 100 years ago still exists, and that will continue.”