Brighter Than Ever

The historic laboratories where Thomas Edison toiled are restored and open to the public

Thomas Edison?s heavy machine shop and his private lab.

Credit: NPS/Leonard DeGraaf

Almost from the moment he became chairman and president of the Charles Edison Fund more than a decade ago, John P. Keegan had an ambitious project in mind: the restoration of Thomas Edison's famed laboratory complex in West Orange, N.J., where the inventor secured more than half of his 1,093 patents. The approximately six-acre complex, a precursor to the modern research lab, had fallen into such disrepair that in 1993 the National Trust for Historic Preservation added the site to its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. For Keegan and his philanthropic organization—started by Edison's son in 1948 and dedicated to medical research, science education, and historic preservation—the project held special significance. "If we can't preserve this," Keegan remembered thinking of the site, "there isn't much to talk about in terms of the Edison legacy."

Keegan, now 70, quickly forged a partnership with the National Park Service (which had named the laboratory a national historic site more than 50 years ago) to restore the redbrick main laboratory and 13 other buildings, where Edison developed such inventions as the movie projector and alkaline battery. There was no time to waste. The lack of adequate heating, cooling, and fire protection systems compromised the safety of more than 400,000 artifacts and five million documents from Edison's research.

In 1998, First Lady Hillary Clinton visited the lab site to publicize the creation of Save America's Treasures, a partnership between the National Trust and National Park Service. Accompanying her was the CEO of General Electric, John F. Welch Jr., who announced a $5 million donation from the company. The park service later initiated a five-year, $13 million restoration, drawing on substantial funds provided by the Edison Innovation Foundation, a nonprofit offshoot of the Edison Fund. Workers repaired the buildings' mortar, bluestone sills, and wire-mesh glass. They stabilized walls, installed new HVAC systems, and upgraded plumbing, electrical, and sprinkler systems. "The buildings have never looked better," Keegan says.

The site reopened in October, and visitors today can explore the main lab's recording and photography studios, a precision machine shop, a private lab, and a three-tiered library containing 10,000 rare books and the boss' rolltop desk. Keegan calls the library "probably the most iconic room in America with regard to research and development."

Visitors also now have access to some of Edison's 48,000 sound recordings—including a few of the first ever made—and can see hundreds of phonographs, among them Edison's original 1877 model. "We've kind of moved things back into place, matching them with photographs of what the rooms looked like when Edison was working," says Theresa Jung, the park's assistant superintendent. "Some of the places look like Thomas Edison was here this morning and just went out to lunch."

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.