A small park space in Downtown Buffalo, at Main and North Division, is now officially recognized as Nikola Tesla Park. It was Marty McGee, a local Tesla fanatic, who should be credited for making this happen. And what a process it was – a real undertaking that was years in the making.
Speaking with McGee earlier this morning by telephone, he told me that there was an incident that initially got him thinking about the tribute, back in 2012. “I was in Palm Springs, and this couple from Denver started putting Buffalo down, when I told them where I was from,” McGee told me. “I couldn’t believe it. They were very rude – it was insulting. It got me to thinking about reasons why people should visit – the cool things about Buffalo. That’s when I thought to myself, ‘Tesla is cool!’ But where in Buffalo is there an impressive tribute to the inventor?”
The idea for the Tesla sculpture was officially hatched at the 2017 Tesla Festival in the Old First Ward. McGee originally worked with festival co-founder Dana Saylor. But as far back as 2016, McGee knew that he wanted to pay tribute to the inventor, who made his mark on Buffalo in 1895 when he “turned on the juice” to power the streetcars at midnight on November 16.
McGee’s epiphany to have a Tesla sculpture in Downtown Buffalo was also driven by the notion that there was already one in Niagara Falls, and that the two statues would help to bridge the cities, both of which benefitted from his AC power play. But where would the statue go? And who would pay for it?
“Nikola Tesla was at a Power Banquet as a keynote speaker at the Ellicott Square Building during the pinnacle of his career, when he was 40 years old in 1897,” said McGee. “This was after he gifted the world AC power. He was lauded by everyone – he spoke 7 languages… he was a superstar. At the talk, he introduced the concept of wireless technology – it was very significant. That’s why we chose the location of the park – across the street from where he spoke on that day,” said McGee, who learned the important local history connection from the excellent research of Dana Saylor.
The exact location was easy to pinpoint, though not as easy to procure. “No one knew who owned it,” explained McGee [laughing]. “After I worked with the Buffalo Arts Commission for statue approval, we went to the DOT, to see who owned the property. It turns out that 60 years ago there were plans to criss-cross the city with elevated roadways. It never happened… I believe that this plot of land was going to be an onramp for the project. Eventually we discovered that the City owns the green space and the State owns the curbs and sidewalks. We had to get formal documentation, so that we could make a public park. Now it’s official – it’s called Nikola Tesla Park. It’s the first one in the US – a resolution was introduced by Pridgen and Golombek, and passed through City Hall.”
Aside from settling on a location, and ironing out the ownership issues, there was the concern of finances. McGee began to do the roadshow, talking to everyone that he could about the statue. “I connected with a Serbian church in Lackawanna” he said. “Tesla was Serbian, so I started there. I spoke to Father Golic. It turned out that he had an academic coming from Serbia to talk about the spirituality of Tesla. Upon learning that, I contacted the Buffalo History Museum, to see if he could speak there on a different date – that was in 2018. They said ‘yes.’ At the talk, I met Francis Lestingi, a retired Buffalo State science professor, who happens to drive around in a Tesla. He turned out to be a Nikola Tesla fanatic as well… and my new colleague in my venture. The guy knows everything that there is to know about Tesla. He even ended up personally funding the sculpture.”
Eventually, with the help of Arts Services Initiative of WNY, the project was granted non-profit status as the Buffalo Niagara Nikola Tesla Council.
Then, with the help of Lestingi, supporters began to come out of the woodwork. What started with a dig against his hometown resulted in a brilliant undertaking that not only produced a fabulous and timely sculpture, it also gave birth to a micropark in the city’s core, where Tesla electrified a crowd with his futuristic speech over 100 years ago.
Ultimately, McGee attributes the successful undertaking to “The importance of ‘Nikola Tesla awareness,’ and for the greater good of Buffalo.”