(CNN) This is a building that refuses to go down without a fight.
In 1914, a massive fire raged through inventor Thomas Edison’s lab complex in downtown West Orange, New Jersey. Chemical-fueled flames shot 100 feet in the sky, burning five city blocks and destroying almost his entire operation.
Edison watched firemen fight the inferno from neighboring Building Number 5, better known as the Battery Factory, which made millions of batteries for experimental vehicles like submarines and electric cars. Built with his durable Edison Cement, the Battery Factory miraculously escaped damage.
“As one of the millions of your admirers, I send you my sympathy,” rival inventor Nikola Tesla telegraphed him. “It is not only a personal and national loss, but a world loss, for you have been one of its greatest benefactors.”
The 67-year-old Edison calmly declared, “I’ll start all over again tomorrow.”
In true Edison fashion, disaster led directly to innovation: The man with 1,093 different patents to his name — from a viable lightbulb to the phonograph to the motion picture camera — noticed firefighters had trouble seeing in the smoky darkness, and two days later had invented a powerful battery-powered searchlight.
Edison rebuilt his entire operation, but after his death in 1931, his business empire slowly crumbled and buildings went vacant. After decades of decline, a different kind of fire tore through Edison’s complex on Main Street: the drive for urban renewal.
‘This one can stay’
Robert Parisi lived next door to the Edison buildings and remembers watching them go in 1974.
“My father got us out of bed early to watch the implosions,” describes Parisi, now mayor of West Orange. “We local kids climbed through the rubble for days, collecting souvenirs like old Edison wax cylinders.”
As for the Battery Factory, the story goes that the wrecking ball smashed into it three times; three times it bounced back off the durable Edison Cement.
“So they decided, ‘This one can stay,'” says Eugene Diaz, principal at Prism Partners, the developers who now own the property.
Although various businesses rented small portions of the massive building over the years (including wine storage for Daniel Boulud’s restaurants in New York), by 2003 the old Edison Battery Factory stood vacant and neglected, slowly crumbling, walled off from the surrounding streets by a high fence and an even higher jungle of weeds.
That’s how it has sat for 13 years, as developers waited out the economic downturn and legal battles over proposed redevelopment.
“The vast majority of park visitors pass that when they come to the park, which doesn’t present a good first impression,” admits Tom Ross, superintendent of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, which preserves Edison’s main laboratory next door.
Closed for its own extensive five-year renovation, Edison NHP reopened in 2009 with thousands of square feet of beautiful new exhibits and lab space on two full floors previously closed to the public — with a hulking symbol of industrial decline next door. (When Jack Welch, chairman of the capital campaign to invest tens of millions of dollars in the park’s renovation, brought then-first lady Hillary Clinton here, they embarrassingly stood in the shadow of the crumbling Battery Factory.)
“It’s a huge eyesore right in the middle of our downtown,” Parisi admits.
A space between preservation and development
But Thomas Edison’s legacy of turning obstacles into innovation lives on, as the building could now become a symbol of collaboration between two adversaries stereotypically pitted against each other as fiercely as Edison and Tesla: developers and the National Park Service.
The key is a concept called “adaptive reuse,” a sort of middle-ground compromise between historical preservation and redevelopment. Although Edison’s last remaining factory is designated a State and National Historic Landmark, it’s not part of the national park.
“Any developers who were interested told us it was much more economical if they could just knock it down and start from scratch,” says Parisi. “But it’s our history here, and an important part of our country’s history. No one in town wants to see that happen.”
“And of course these refurbished warehouses are now all the rage in real estate,” he says.
Developers are converting the 400,000-square-foot building into 330 apartments plus 18,500 square feet of retail space.
Prism Partners deliberately avoided taking federal tax credits that would make them beholden to historic preservation restrictions, instead consulting with the neighboring Edison National Historical Park and local West Orange Historical Commission to determine appropriate choices like paint color and window styles.
“We’re not beholden to all the historic requirements,” Diaz explains, “but the work is being done in a way that conforms significantly to what the federal government would require if we’d done a full historic renovation under federal guidelines.”
Although preservationists have cringed at putting that power in the hands of a developer, to park superintendent Ross, it was a good compromise for an otherwise vacant building — and one that he’s seen work firsthand.
“It’s something we’ve seen with historic factory buildings in the Northeast, particularly in Lowell and New Bedford, Massachusetts, where I grew up,” says Ross. “There it’s been an excellent way to save, historically rehabilitate and reuse old buildings. You can already see the revitalization and rebirth.”
“Sustainability, recycling, reuse — that’s an important part of our ethic and broader mission at the Park Service,” Ross says. “Giving historic structures a shot to be adaptively reused is good stewardship, good for the environment and good for historic preservation.”
Finding a new use for history
Thanks to its proximity to New York City, West Orange is a town with a deep history.
It’s got ties from the Revolutionary era (of course Washington was here, and Aaron Burr later fled to friends here after his infamous duel with Alexander Hamilton) to the Civil War (Union commander George McClellan moved here just before he ran against Abraham Lincoln for president in 1864) to famous sportsmen (the “grand old man of football” Amos Stagg), architects (Stanford White) and musicians (both Liberace and Carole King got their start here).
But, by and large, those physical settings are all gone, except for that of the town’s most famous son, Thomas Edison.
“If the Battery Factory had been removed like the others, it would have wiped away chapters of our history,” says Joe Fagan, town historian and author of four books about West Orange.
Now underway, Prism’s $230 million plan for “Edison Village” will convert the 400,000-square-foot building into 330 apartments plus 18,500 square feet of retail space, along with public areas featuring historic artifacts and exhibits about Thomas Edison, then start on similar development over the surrounding 21 acres that once made up the larger complex.
Among the Battery Factory’s unique features (beyond the dense Edison Cement, which Diaz charitably describes as “challenging”) are 14-to-16-foot ceilings and 10-foot windows.
“You’d never build a new building like that,” Diaz admits. And that unique historic pedigree is his main selling point.
“People have a very strong emotional connection to history. People will be able to have the same view Edison’s workers did 100 years ago. That history will be the appeal of this building.”
The first phase is scheduled to open late next year — welcome news to both Parisi and Ross.
“It’s been a long and winding road,” Parisi says, “but this kind of investment on Main Street is great for our downtown. One project can spur others, and most importantly, spur the neighboring community to pick itself up.”
“There’s no denying that this will certainly be a shot in the arm for Main Street and the park to have that rehabilitation next door,” Ross says.
“In New Bedford, Sarah Delano famously said, ‘If you bulldoze your heritage, you become just anywhere.’ If you knock down the last remaining Edison factory building and put in another cookie-cutter strip mall, you will become just like any other place in America — you’ll lose your community character, a part of your soul.”