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Tesla Shoreham landmark at risk

Tesla's wireless experimental station in Shoreham, Long Island.

Tesla's wireless experimental station in Shoreham, Long Island. (Aug. 22, 1907) Credit: Bettmann/CORBIS

Nikola Tesla can't catch a break.

The Serbian-American scientist -- who invented key components of modern electricity and radio, only to see fame and fortune go to others -- died penniless in a Manhattan hotel room in 1943.

Now, local efforts to preserve his former lab -- called Wardenclyffe -- on Route 25A in Shoreham seem to be faltering.

A recent $4-million donation to buy and restore the lab fell through when the investor, a Tesla fan in St. Louis, fell ill, said filmmaker and Tesla enthusiast Joe Sikorski, of Babylon.

And a Shoreham nonprofit that has tried for years to raise money to buy the building for a museum and science center is worried that a proposed zoning change from residential to business, as urged by the Route 25A corridor study, will attract buyers who care less about the scientific legacy.

"We need to make sure we have the funding we need to acquire the property to save it for future generations," said Jane Alcorn, president of the nonprofit group Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe.

"They don't understand the value of the property," said Sikorski, who is writing a screenplay about the scientist's life. Sikorski has pledged to raise the estimated $1.6 million needed to buy Wardenclyffe.

"Tragedy strikes again," said Kathryn Simos, who is volunteering to bring publicity to the museum and film efforts. "It kind of parallels Tesla's own life."

The lab, built in 1903, was designed by famed architect Stanford White for his friend Tesla, a multidisciplinary giant who also built power generators at Niagara Falls and conducted far-reaching research on energy and robotics.

He left Wardenclyffe in 1915, after financier J.P. Morgan stopped funding his work, Sikorski said; and a distinctive 187-foot-high tower used for radio-wave experiments was demolished in 1917-1918.

The Peerless Photo Products processing company bought the property in 1939 and dumped so many chemicals in the pit where the tower stood that the state Department of Environmental Conservation in 1983 declared the property a Superfund site.

Current owners Agfa, a Belgian multinational company, completed the state's required cleanup, and in March, the DEC declared the property had met environmental standards.

The lab's main red brick building still stands, and while the lab has languished, Tesla loyalists have tried for years to acquire it for a museum to the scientist. Fans have inquired from around the world, said Hauppauge realtor John O'Hara, who represents Agfa in the sale.

"I've been getting a lot of crazy people. He was an extraordinary person," O'Hara said. "I get calls from Australia. I get calls [from] all over the world. There's so much interest in the property."

A Russian woman who visited New York for Tesla's 156th birthday in July contacted O'Hara about buying the lab with the same goals of making it a research center and museum, he said.

But the international attention has alarmed the Shoreham group. "Private investors have individual agendas that may not be best for the community, and will control the future development of the land -- whether it be cutting the property into parcels or selling it outright to a higher bidder," Simos wrote in an email after learning of the Russian interest. "There is no guarantee of historic preservation or architectural integrity."

O'Hara said he would like the property to stay in local hands. The sellers are "negotiable," he said. "If we can get a fair deal, I'd love to see the friends of Tesla here get it."

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