Firefighters from multiple departments respond to a fire at the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe. Credit: Thomas Lambui

Investigators are trying to determine the cause of a fire that heavily damaged the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe Tuesday. 

Dozens of firefighters across multiple departments worked late Tuesday to put out the blaze at the site of famed scientist Nikola Tesla's final laboratory in Shoreham.

Firefighters confronted flames leaping out of the northeast portion of the lab just below the prominent peak of the century-old building. 

On Wednesday, Suffolk police said the building had been undergoing a renovation. Arson squad detectives are investigating the fire, which police said does not appear to be suspicious.

About 8 p.m., as the fire continued to burn on a cold, rainy night, the laboratory's roof appeared to be destroyed by flames, and damage to the building looked extensive.

Next to the center is Tesla Street, a small residential road police had blocked off but had not evacuated. Police also had closed Route 25A between Randall Road and Miller Avenue for several hours but reopened the area about 8 p.m.

“It’s emotionally devastating,” said Tesla Science Center board member Jane Alcorn, who has helped lead decadeslong efforts to restore the lab and reopen it to the public.

“With all the things we’ve been doing and trying to do … we’re just in shock.”

Fire and smoke atop a section of the roof at...

Fire and smoke atop a section of the roof at the Tesla Science Center. Credit: Newsday/Grant Parpan

Suffolk police said one firefighter was transported to a hospital for treatment of unspecified injuries. On Wednesday, the firefighter's condition was not available.

Marc Alessi, executive director of the nonprofit, said officials told him at least eight departments responded to the fire.

“My thoughts right now are on just minimizing the damage to this historic building,” Alessi said as he watched plumes of smoke rise overhead. “We’re going to have to get back to the drawing board tomorrow.”

Alessi said he was grateful for the quick and abundant response from area fire departments, including Rocky Point, which has a firehouse two properties east on Route 25A.

“These are members of our community who pulled together for the safety of this place,” Alessi said. “We’ve always felt the community has our back in restoring this place.”

Alcorn hoped the brick frame of the building would hold up and be salvaged.

Construction on the lab, built by famed architect Stanford White, began in 1901 and continued until 1905, Alcorn said.

Tesla planned to construct a 187-foot tower at the site to create a pioneering global wireless communication system, the organization notes on its website. He ran out of time and money, however, and the still incomplete tower was scrapped to satisfy his debt in 1917, according to the website.

The Tesla Science Center is working on a $20 million restoration of the 16-acre property, though efforts to acquire and revitalize it date back more than 20 years. About 20 satellite buildings at the site were to be demolished as part of construction, and the former lab's interior restored to resemble its appearance during Tesla's time there, designers told Newsday in April.

Elon Musk, who named his automobile company after the legendary scientist, donated $1 million to the cause in 2012 and a crowdsourcing effort brought in donations from 33,000 people in 100 countries.

Asbestos removal and an environmental cleanup from chemicals left at the site by a photo company that once owned it have been among the remediation efforts.

Alcorn said she hoped the fire will be something the group can move quickly past, but there was no way of knowing as the hoses from fire trucks continued to spray the lab, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018.

“I know that it was built well,” Alcorn said. “It’s stood there over 100 years. I hope the integrity of the building is maintained.”

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