The ground is overgrown, the pavement cracked, the windows boarded up and the doors are all locked. It’s one of the most toxic sites in Suffolk County—a blighted brownfield along 25A in Shoreham—yet once held out the promise of something so revolutionary it could have changed the course of civilization. The place is not much to look at today. But it was here in 1901 that Nikola Tesla, one of the most visionary scientists the world has ever known—whose gifts to humankind include AC current, robotics, fluorescent lighting and the bladeless turbine (to name a view)—undertook what was going to be his greatest ambition, and ultimately became his greatest failure: the wireless transmission of electric power to anywhere on Earth. Power he was going to give away, literally. For free.
Here, Tesla’s creation and its secrets rot, neglected, in an abandoned lot behind a barbed-wire fence obscured by weeds, right here on Long Island. Soon, however, they may be gone forever.
“This is his last standing lab in the world,” says Assemb. Marc Alessi (D-Shoreham). “It’s not just a Long Island landmark or even a national landmark. This is a world-wide historic site because this man has contributed so much to the progress of mankind.”
By the end of this month more than a dozen soil samples will be taken from a Superfund site in Shoreham and given to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Once the tests are completed and no further signs of contamination are found, the DEC can finally clear the 16 acres for sale. The former industrial property, where photo products were manufactured from 1939 until 1987, is now zoned for 2-acre housing. The Agfa Corporation’s current asking price is $1.65 million, but it’s negotiable, the company says. What’s not negotiable is that it must be sold. Donating it to a not-for-profit group is out of the question.
“We could sell it today. We just need to find a buyer,” says Christopher M. Santomassimo, the corporation’s general counsel and secretary for its North America operations.
The company is paying for the final phase of the DEC study as part of its legal obligation under terms of the State Superfund clean-up, having spent more than $5 million since it bought the property in 1969 from Peerless Photo Products. You can understand why they might want to unload it. The Agfa Corporation, already buffeted by the digital revolution, has been hit hard in the recession, and it hasn’t made money from this photo-products facility in decades. In 1983, the DEC said the hazardous waste on the site, from heavy metals like cadmium, silver and lead, posed “a significant threat” and immediate action was required. The property is located over a single-source aquifer, and for years Peerless had dumped its wastewater into a man-made lagoon about 800 feet by 400 feet long near where the old railroad tracks used to be. Agfa signed a remedial agreement with the DEC in 1991.
“Peerless polluted the property and they got stuck with the clean-up,” said a representative of Corporate Realty Services, which is representing Agfa. “We have some people looking at it, but there’s nothing serious at this point.”
That could be the best news about Tesla in a very long time.
With typical fanfare, Tesla had proclaimed at the dawn of the 20th century that he was going to erect a broadcasting station there among the fields in Suffolk County, which he would call “Radio City.” Today, historians know the area as Wardenclyffe.
Financier J.P. Morgan was familiar with Tesla’s groundbreaking development of polyphase motors using alternating current and his success with New York entrepreneur George Westinghouse at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Morgan gave Tesla $150,000 on the assumption the inventor was going to connect the financial capitals of the world and relay stock reports to investors like him. Tesla had a far bigger idea in mind. He took the money and acquired 200 acres from James S. Warden, director of the Suffolk County Land Co., who was hoping Tesla’s future employees would want to live nearby. From the beginning, reports The Port Jefferson Echo in the summer of 1901, Tesla aimed high: “He expects to converse electrically with all countries without wires and this station at Wardenclyffe will be his main station…The above will draw to Wardenclyffe men in the highest scientific circles from many portions of the globe.”
The plan called for a tower 187 feet high, and a well dug 120 feet deep with a network of tunnels connecting to the aquifer, as well as steel shafts reaching further into the earth. The main facility, about 100 feet on a side, included boilers, engines, dynamos and a machine shop as well as Tesla’s experimental laboratory. The red-brick building, designed by Tesla’s friend Stanford White and given to him as a gift, is still there, but in disrepair. Its high-arched windows and doorways are practically hidden from view by leafy overgrowth. A 6-foot high chain-link fence topped with barbed-wire encircles the property. Agfa’s large shipping and storage annexes (with their white aluminum-siding and white-washed cinder blocks splashed with graffiti) encapsulate the historic structure.
On a recent Saturday afternoon only a deer could be spotted moving on the deserted property. The asphalt paving and concrete slabs covering most of the land between the major buildings are cracked and uneven. Once they were filled with a steady stream of trucks going to and from the factory. The ground in front of the exposed façade of Tesla’s lab has been noticeably bulldozed and leveled, perhaps a sign of the environmental clean-up. A flagpole is all that stands between the lab and the concrete octagonal foundation of “Tesla’s magic tower,” as local residents dubbed it. The core, which once had a spiral staircase leading many stories below where there was another network of copper-lined tunnels, has been filled in with dirt. The DEC reports that “unknown materials” were also buried in there until 1973. Some have claimed that equipment from Tesla’s lab may have been thrown there. From one of the granite corner stones juts a rusty iron bolt, one of the few reminders of the inventor’s original intention.
Once, the tower could be seen as far away as New Haven.
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