Last Saturday was a day of firsts, both in the proverbial and the concrete. On a day which showed the first real touch of cool fall weather after an oftentimes blistering summer, so too did the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe put its finishing touches on what’s expected to eventually be a full museum and learning center for the North Shore.
On Sept. 19, the center unveiled its newly reconstructed chimney sitting atop the historic building constructed by the brilliant but notorious architect Stanford White in 1902. The small crowd of volunteers and local supporters cheered as the newly reworked 1,200-pound black-iron crown, also known as a wellhead, was lowered down onto the chimney via crane. The iron crown was originally repaired by a local blacksmith while a team of volunteers worked to give it a fresh sheen.
It was a touching moment for the several volunteers who came to watch the final piece laid on top. Many of those have been with the project since the local nonprofit Friends of Science East bought the property through an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign in 2013. They have helped clean the grounds, landscape the property and be there for the multiple fundraising events. If you asked the volunteers gathered there, they would tell you the chimney was originally used to vent heat and exhaust from a Westinghouse dynamo that famed scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla used to generate power for his experiments in wireless energy and communications.
As excited as those gathered were, the ceremony came just a little more than a week after Suffolk County police said an unknown person or persons broke into the science center earlier this month and graffitied the inside and smashed windows just underneath the now-reconstructed chimney.
Police said the vandals entered the science center, located at 5 Randall Road, Shoreham, sometime between Sept. 7 and 12. Whoever it was apparently spray-painted “WTF” on one of the walls and another acronym on a toilet. The damage was valued at approximately $3,000.
But by the weekend following the vandalism, all windows had been fixed, and there wasn’t one downcast face amongst the spectators.
Marc Alessi, executive director of the science center, said the chimney restoration in total cost around $230,000, and much was covered thanks to a grant from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation. Original plans were just to reconstruct the top portion of the chimney, but structural issues quickly became apparent, and they ordered that the entire piece be remade. Work originally started in May, but the ongoing pandemic pushed back construction awhile.
The center tapped Long Island City-based building restoration company Skyline Restoration to perform the task. Kevin Cahill, a project manager for Skyline, said each brick was designed to match both the color and size of the original structure. Though the company is hired on other historic projects, this one, he said, is special.
“It’s exciting bringing back something that’s so old and keeping it to what it was originally was,” he said. “We redid the windows exactly how they originally were — the brickwork, matching the mortar colors, bringing it back to the exact dimensions it originally was.”
Though in doing the reconstruction, Cahill said numerous other significant discoveries were made while doing construction June 5. Inside the building, beneath the chimney is an arched-brick opening in the base, something that connected several tunnels leading off in different directions. Finding those, Cahill said he crawled through in the dark, wondering what he would find. Unfortunately, the path was blocked by some collapsed brick, but that might have covered up another entryway.
Alessi said these tunnels could have had something to do with Tesla’s famous Wardenclyffe Tower, which the lab site was originally built for. It was designed to allow electricity to travel wirelessly, but so much is still unknown of how it would work. He added the site’s hired historic architect may make more details on that available in the near future
For Jane Alcorn, president of the science center’s board of directors, it was a stunning moment watching the iron cupola lowered down onto the chimney. She was at the head of Friends of Science East when it originally bought the property, and though it has been slow coming to this moment, she said this project was never something they wanted to rush.
“We said we were going to do this right, not fast,” Alcorn said. “This is really the first section of the lab that’s been restored, so we are well on our way.”
The center has raised around $10.2 million for its museum and science center project, about halfway toward its total $20 million goal. It’s enough to get started, Alessi said, and the next stage of the project is to remove the large metal-walled building abutting the historic lab, leaving the building looking like it was originally intended to. After that, it’s on to constructing a welcome center where an old house sits on the southwest end of property and developing its programs.
The Tesla Science Center’s executive director added they are still in the process of getting demolition permits from the Town of Brookhaven, but hopes that part should be finished around the end of October.