2007-06-20 / Front Page

Edison Tower renovations begin; fundraising continues

Deadline for matching funds looms; Tower corp. seeks last-min. donations

Staff Writer

EDISON - While the concrete may crumble in clumps from the facade of the Edison Memorial Tower, the light still burns in more ways than one.

Preliminary work has begun on the tower's renovations; an engineering and architectural planning firm, Watson & Henry Associates, has been called in to reprise its role of assessing the tower's condition and advising ways to renovate the 69-year-old obelisk.

Nancy Zerbe, the chairwoman of the Edison Memorial Tower Corp. (EMTC), was joined by Sen. Barbara Buono (D-18) and Assemblyman Peter Barnes III (D-18) for a press conference last Wednesday to commemorate the kicking off of the tower's renovations and to lay out the three goals the Tower Corp. has for spending the first $500,000 it was allocated by the state.

Those goals included repairs to the tower and planning for a new museum. The current museum, Zerbe said, was never meant to serve in that capacity, so the third goal would be improvements to that facility until the new museum is completed.

"This is the site where Tom Edison did his most important work," Zerbe said. "The two-room museum that we have was never intended to be a museum; it's not adequate for the importance of the site."

Buono, former Assemblyman Peter Barnes Jr. and Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan were integral in getting funding for the renovations. Once the preliminary study of the tower is completed, the state will grant the $1.8 million it had set aside in the 2007 budget for tower repairs. That money, Zerbe said, would cover the cost of final plans and the early parts of the construction.

Buono said that the Tower and its adjoining museum is "a jewel" that should be renovated and that there is a need for a new museum.

"There are so many artifacts," Buono said about the museum, "we need a good place to display them - it doesn't do it justice."

Barnes, who said he grew in the Menlo Park section of Edison, said that the Tower had an effect on him growing up.

"As a young guy who grew up in this town ... ," Barnes said, "the tower was a looming presence in my childhood."

Barnes called on the people presently working on the tower renovation project to continue their efforts because they would be the ones to "carry the ball" for the next generation of Edison residents the tower will affect.

Michael Henry, of Watson & Henry, said the firm would spend the rest of the summer conducting its survey of the structure and would compare it with the survey data it collected in 1994. Henry said it would give them an opportunity to examine the rate of deterioration and get to what he called "the root" of the tower's current condition.

"When repairs are undertaken," Henry said, "one wants to address the root cause of the deterioration as opposed to the surface symptoms."

Henry said that the bulk of the restoration would most likely be the tower's cosmetic facade, where clumps of concrete have been begun coming loose and falling. The tower has had a temporary chain-link fence around the immediate area of the tower and workers are required to wear hard hats to limit the chance of injury.

Though there is some evidence of water intrusion into the structural concrete, it is minimal and not the largest problem facing the tower.

"The danger is in its shedding skin," Henry said. "The concrete on the inside is still very sound."

The "we" and "our" museum

The EMTC had the architectural firm of Farewell, Mills and Gatch conduct a study of five focus groups, ranging from high school students at J.P Stevens High School to community residents to assess what direction they felt the EMTC should head.

Zerbe said it was important that the EMTC get a wide range of input from not just the tower's immediate neighbors, but from the entire community. For the tower and museum to be viable, it was going to require visitors from outside the community as well as inside.

"We needed more public input," Zerbe said.

The response Zerbe got from the focus groups surprised her.

"The sense of community is as important as the history," Zerbe said the focus groups told her.

Zerbe said that many of the older neighbors felt that a new museum, in particular, would bring back the sense of community in the area that the Tower and Museum used to provide but does not any longer.

Zerbe said the students surveyed immediately referred to the museum as "our" museum and told them what "we" wanted to see done.

Museum curator Jack Stanley said that the sense of community is important to the site's relevance in the community.

"If you can instill pride in wherever you are, it is an important thing," Stanley said. "That's how you make a movement."

The matching funds

The Tower Corp. held a luncheon at the Pines Manor in Edison on June 14 to get local businesses interested in the tower project.

The luncheon comes just two weeks before a very real deadline for federal funding for the project.

The Edison Memorial Tower Corp., with the help of the area's legislators, was able to get a six-month extension on receipt of federal funding for renovations to the tower.

The U.S. Mint has promised a matching grant of $379,000, providing the EMTC can come up with the same amount of money. If the EMTC comes up a dollar short, the matching grant is voided. The corporation has until the end

of the month.

Zerbe and the EMTC has been working for the past year to raise what she said was not a large amount of money. While success is still a little way off, she has always remained hopeful that the EMTC will be able to make the deadline.

The only snag is, the funds cannot come from public coffers. According to Zerbe, all the funds must come from private donations, and the EMTC has held fundraisers since receiving the extension in January.

While the fundraising for this portion of the project has been slow, Zerbe is confident the EMTC will make its deadline and has even said, half-jokingly, that if the efforts come up $1,000 short, she would throw it in herself.

"I think we're going to get the job done," she said. "I'm feeling very optimistic."

As of before the luncheon the EMTC had $187,000 left to raise. When the afternoon was over, that figure was $139,000 and Zerbe is hopeful that the business community will step up even further.

About the luncheon, Zerbe said, "It was all a very upbeat, positive mood. … The community [is] pulling together behind this project."

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