Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Tesla's South Fifth Avenue Laboratory

In August of 1892, Tesla moved his laboratory from 175 Grand to 33-35 South Fifth Avenue where he took up the fourth floor. This was on the east side of the middle of the block, south of Third, north of Bleecker. He continued there for two and a half years until his laboratory burnt down on March 13, 1895. (Ironically, Tesla's favorite numbers were 3 and 13.)

Here are excerpts of the story of the fire from the New York Times:

"I am in too much grief to talk. What can I say? The work of half my lifetime, very nearly all my mechanical instruments and scientific apparatus, that it has taken years to perfect, swept away in a fire that lasted only an hour or two. How can I estimate the loss in mere dollars and cents? Everything is gone. I must begin over again."

That is all that Nikola Tesla, the renowned electrician, had to say about a fire that utterly wiped out his laboratory at 35 South Fifth Avenue yesterday and destroyed instruments on which he has made experiments in advanced electricity that have astonished the world. Tears were in his eyes when he spoke. 
Gillis & Geoghegan, manufacturers of steamfitters' supplies, occupied the lower floors of the building in which Mr. Tesla had his laboratory. Night Watchman Mahoney was employed to look after the building. He said that he was making his rounds as usual just before 3 o’clock yesterday morning when he discovered the fire. It had started on the ground floor, but from precisely what cause is not known. He tried in vain to put it out with pails of water. Mr. Tesla's Great Loss. New York Times, March 14, 1895.

The South Fifth Avenue laboratory location is shown below, highlighted in green on an 1891 map.

From: Bromley, George Washington. Atlas of the city of New York, Manhattan Island. 1891. The David Rumsey Map Collection.

South Fifth Avenue was renamed West Broadway in 1896 and the address corresponding to 33-35 became 537-539. Here is the location in an 1897 Atlas. The building is the one highlighted in light blue on the left side of the map. It is greatly lengthened, and from the description of the magnitude of the fire, it is likely that large sections were newly built.

From: Bromley, George Washington. Atlas of the city of New York, Manhattan Island. 1897. New York Public Library Archives.

The map below depicts the area in 1904. The building with Tesla's lab is highlighted in yellow. (However, it was rebuilt.)

From Bird's Eye View of New York City, 1904. New York Public Library.

Gillis & Geoghegan specialized in steam and hot water heating plants. Their names can be found on steam gauges and they promoted a telescopic hoist for lifting items for construction. They continued to be located at 537-539 West Broadway through at least the mid-1920s. In an advertisement dated 1929, they had moved across the street to 540 W. Broadway.

A 1918 Advertisement for a G & G Hoist.

By the 1970s, this section of street was renamed LaGuardia Place. A copse of trees now occupies the space in front of a block of businesses and these trees would be the true location of the site of Tesla's lab. As for the businesses, 539 borders 535 and occupies the space of both 537 and 539. Ennio & Michael's Ristorante was located at this address from 1988 to 2010. (The End is Near for Ennio & Michael's, New York Times, July 22, 2010.) The LaGuardia Student Co-op now occupies this street number.

Part One: Tesla's East Houston Laboratory.
Part Two: Tesla's Grand Street Laboratory.
Part Four: Tesla's Liberty Street Laboratory.
Part Five: A Clear Photo of the Building that Housed Tesla's East Houston Laboratory.

Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of A Predatory Mind. Its sequel, set in 1890s Manhattan and titled A Predator's Game, features Nikola Tesla as a dective and will be available from Rook's Page Publishing, March 28, 2016.  (More details coming soon.)
His recent mystery, Never Kill A Friend, is available from Ransom Note Press. His epic poem, Two Mistakes, recently won second place in the Margaret Reid/Tom Howard Poetry Competition. He can be contacted at


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