25 Years of the 11 Most Endangered List: Thomas Edison's Invention Factory

Posted on: May 8th, 2012 by David Garber

"How can you take all these resources and best organize them for an authentic and logical visitor experience?" That was the question that Richard Southwick, Director of Historic Preservation for Beyer Blinder Belle, and his team asked themselves when they were tasked with restoring Thomas Edison's Invention Factory in West Orange, New Jersey.

The factory -- also known as Thomas Edison West Orange Laboratories and Thomas Edison National Historical Park -- landed on the National Trust's "America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places" list in 1993 because of deterioration and neglect (six of its 12 buildings were closed to the public), as well as for poor planning for the cataloging of millions of original documents related to Edison's work.

Listing the factory buildings on our 11 Most Endangered list turned the spotlight onto this historic complex, eventually paving the way for a six-year, $13 million meticulous restoration of the place where Edison produced over 500 patents and developed his ideas for alkaline batteries, recorded music, and motion pictures. 

Southwick and his team's main challenges during the restoration were to keep the factory buildings as authentic to their original use and look as possible -- while bringing them all up to safety, fire, and universal accessibility codes -- and creating a better educational and interpretive visitor experience.

The end result feels less like a museum and more like a preserved moment in time. Many of the 400,000 artifacts, phonographs, and five million documents were finally brought out of storage. Curators used Edison's photographs as a guide to recreate the rooms just as they were -- many of which now display flickering images of Edison at work. The Invention Factory includes 48,000 sound recordings, Edison's own library of 10,000 books, and archives with 60,000 photographs -- all protected in climate-controlled buildings. Once a year, in June, all of the machinery is turned on, giving visitors an experience not only of the physical place, but also of the sights and sounds of the factory in motion.

Upon donating $5 million to help preserve and restore Thomas Edison's Invention Factory in 2001, General Electric chairman and CEO Jack Welch noted that "Thomas Edison was not only the inventor of the light bulb and the father of GE, his inventions were also critical in developing industries ranging from power generation to sound recording to the movies. It is impossible to imagine the 20th century without him."

And what better way to help preserve that legacy than by taking care of the place where those ideas were first brought to life?

This year marks the 25th anniversary of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Visit our website to explore a quarter-century of inspiring preservation stories. Also, like the National Trust on Facebook to be the first to know which sites are added to the 2012 list.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

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