Lights Are Dim at the Edison Labs

Inventor's workshops rate endangered tag, need extensive repair

By , Special to 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.

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``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. Gerbauckas says.

The site's visitors center, park offices and archival work could be placed in this building to alleviate the space constraints on the current property.

On December 6, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and his sextet recorded several cuts for his next album on the third-floor recording studio used by Edison. The all-acoustic recordings were done on wax cylinders as in Edison's time. One of the cuts is the Black and Tan Rag.

The Park Service is hoping Sony, Marsalis's recording label and a New Jersey headquartered company for the parent in Japan, will make a $200,000 donation for using the studio. Steve Epstein, Marsalis's producer, approached the Park Service about using the studio after he and his wife visited the site, according to Gerbauckas.

In his lifetime, Edison patented 1,093 inventions, half of them on Main Street in what had once been a farming community nestled between two mountain ridges.

Besides moving and talking pictures, here Edison invented the dictaphone, storage battery, fluoroscope, and a technique for poured-concrete buildings.

Gerbauckas estimates that with present funding and staff, which operate under a $1.5 million annual budget, it will take the Park Service well into the 21st century to catalog and make available to the public Edison's 100,000 blueprints, his 4,000 laboratory notebooks, 9,000-item image and photograph collection, as well as the inventor's first audio recordings. The site has only two full-time archivists.

``It's virtually unexplainable to the American public, which owns this, that they can't see it all,'' she added.

Only four of 11 buildings are open to the public (see story at right), and only 50 people at a time are allowed to tour both sites, which have little public seating. Both staffing and parking are limited.

The visitors center is a makeshift exhibition area in the factory's powerhouse on Lakeside Avenue. Most of the artifacts for this building are in storage. So are those from Edison's sound-recording studio on the third floor of the main laboratory, which is closed to the public, as is the second floor where many of his blueprints and notebooks are stored. The one-story physics lab is used by the Park Service for offices.

Glenmont, Edison's 16-acre estate in the gated community of Llewellyn Park, also needs maintenance. According to Gerbauckas, the house needs a new furnace and a paint job, the bricks must be repointed and the roof repaired. The trees also need trimming.

Despite its limitations, the lure of the Edison site is strong. In 1992, 74,833 people visited, an increase of 10,000 from the previous year. The Japanese contingent is so strong that a printed Japanese translation of the tour is now available.

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