Year in Review 2023

Year in Review 2023: Arson ruled out as cause of Tesla Center fire

In late November, the News-Review relayed the bad news of a fire at the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe in Shoreham. At the time, the cause of the fire was undetermined and under investigation. Six days later at a press conference, the news came that arson had been ruled out and the investigation was ongoing.

Rumors crescendoed from whispers to blasts on social media as time went on without an answer to the big question. While the Science Center claimed to be committed to transparency, a Nov. 30 Facebook post offered no news on the cause, only word that an emergency restoration fund campaign had been launched and gushes of thanks to the hundred or so firefighters and EMTs who responded to the blaze.

Although it was a near-disaster for the organization, which has been working to transform the last standing laboratory of famed scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla into a museum and science center, good news came of it: The building still stands.

Marc Alessi, executive director of Tesla Science Center, said at the post- fire press conference that a rough estimate of $3 million now needs to be raised for repairs — in addition to the $6 million the organization was short on pre-fire projects, for a total of $9 million. He quipped that any Tesla buff would understand why those particular numbers were notable. (Google “Tesla 3-6-9 theory.”)

Besides the historic buildings not being reduced to rubble, the organization is using the fire to rally the troops. Word has spread far and wide, and well wishes have arrived on social media from as far as Australia. At the press conference, politicians from every level of government pledged support for the rebuild. With the fire-damaged areas closed to the public, the organization went ahead with its annual holiday tree lighting on Dec. 6.

The enthusiasm and positivity shown by the community in the aftermath of the fire “warmed our hearts and illuminated the Tesla Science Center with a spirit that is truly unbreakable,” said a Facebook post after the tree lighting. But comments on said post reveal that longtime supporters are growing disillusioned with the organization to which they’ve devoted their time and money for years.

The fire occurred Nov. 21 and, to date, no statement about its cause has been made. In a Dec. 15 tele- phone interview, Mr. Alessi said the organization is still awaiting the report from the Brookhaven fire marshal and Suffolk County detectives. “We’re not allowed to disturb the site until insurance companies do their investigations, which should be done soon,” Mr. Alessi said. He said the roof will be rebuilt from scratch, as the steel girders that support it were deemed damaged beyond repair by the fire. The brick walls will need to be treated with polyurethane to stanch damage done by the water used to put out the fire.

Mr. Alessi said that although the fire set the organization back with work on the laboratory, they are mak- ing progress on other projects on the property, where a house is being renovated into a visitor center. Mr. Alessi said that they removed a slab of concrete and are waiting for Brookhaven Town building permits to begin renovations. He said it will have a small exhibit space and classroom on the first floor and office space upstairs. “We will finally be able to welcome people onto the property,” he said, adding that it will just be an appetizer for what the lab will be when completed. The visitor center is due to open in late 2024.

Supporters of the Science Center also have a new way to join the mission to rebuild: Bricks for Nik. According to a Facebook post, an initiative launched mid-December offers personalized paving bricks in three sizes that will eventually be used to construct an 1,800-square-foot patio adjacent to the visitor center.

With 43 days left in the emergency fire restoration campaign on Indiegogo, more than $56,500 has been pledged by 394 backers. Another unclaimed perk — available for $50,000, the highest donation possible — gets you a two-year stint on the group’s advisory council and a lifetime Science Center membership. The majority of backers, 262 of them, have opted to donate $25 for a digital thank-you letter, expected to be mailed in February.