Lights Are Dim at the Edison Labs Inventor's Workshops Rate Endangered Tag, Need Extensive Repair

By Helen Pike, | The Christian Science Monitor, December 21, 1993 | Go to article overview

Lights Are Dim at the Edison Labs Inventor's Workshops Rate Endangered Tag, Need Extensive Repair


Helen Pike,, The Christian Science Monitor


HIS inventions helped launch the electric, sound-recording, and motion-picture industries.

Yet Thomas A. Edison's laboratories, studios, and nearby 23-room Victorian home on a six-acre site here, have deteriorated badly. This year, they made the endangered-site list published by the National Trust for Historic Places.

And with fewer federal dollars, the National Park Service, which manages the Edison National Historic Site, has listed the brick laboratories and home as 102 out of a priority list of 120 sites in the country that need attention.

"Artifacts need to be in cool, dry places," says Superintendent Maryanne Gerbauckas about the need to upgrade the heating, humidity control, and air-conditioning in the storage vaults and to fix some long-deferred maintenance problems.

Recent torrential rains leaked through the third-floor laboratory roof, damaging a map collection, while some early disk recordings are warped and cracked beyond the point of being playable. To make matters even worse, during winter the site is infested with squirrels.

The Friends of Edison, a private fund-raising group, has estimated the cost of restoring and renovating the national park as high as $30 million.

"History is deteriorating before our eyes," comments Ken Mandel, a trustee and chair of the capital campaign. "If George Washington's or Abraham Lincoln's writings were lying about, you'd be outraged. There would be a bill in Congress to stop it."

The Friends of Edison have attracted a wide group of supporters from New Jersey Sens. Bill Bradley and Frank Lautenberg, actors Eddie Bracken and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., folk-singer Mary Travers, actresses Celeste Holm, Ruth Warwick, and June Lockhart - whose parents met while promoting the Ediphone - to restoration architect John Belle, who worked with the Park Service on Ellis Island, and "Batman" producer Michael Uslan.

"The film is deteriorating," says Mr. Uslan, a Bayonne native who reshot several of Edison's earliest films to show at a recent fund-raising event, including "The Sneeze," "The Kiss," "The Great Train Robbery," and "Smashing a New Jersey Mosquito."

Adds Uslan, "Without Edison there wouldn't be `Three Sovereigns for Sarah,' no `Age of Innocence,' no `Jurassic Park.' "

But there is still a long road to go as the Friends continue to cast around for a national figure to spearhead the capital fund-raising drive.

"We're looking for an Iacocca," says Mr. Mandel, a documentary-film producer, referring to the former Chrysler chairman who helped restore the Statue of Liberty. Mandel further estimates that it could take two or three years just to raise the necessary funds to restore Edison's "Invention Factory," a carry-over nickname from his previous laboratory in Menlo Park.

The Park Service, the town of West Orange and the Main Street Redevelopment Corporation are discussing the possibility of purchasing the Lakeside Avenue section of Edison's original factory in which he produced batteries, Ms. …

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