For those people driving along Twin Cities Highway and crossing Robinson Rd. over the last month (Twin Cities is the continuation of Colvin north of the 290 expressway.) you may have passed it without noticing, but if you drove by at night, it’s impossible to miss. And that’s because of the stunning illumination animating the stately façade of National Grid’s historic Transformer building, the big brick edifice on the west side of the highway.
Up until this year, the building had sat essentially unused and in serious disrepair. There was even talk of demolishing the building, but its historic significance was far too important to suffer such a tragic fate. The building had unfortunately become a forlorn eyesore on the streetscape. It appeared to be abandoned, surrounded by its barb-wire topped chain-link fence and ugly boarded up windows. The old fence has now been replaced by an attractive one in a historically complimentary style.
The timeline of its recently revealed phoenix-like appearance is parallel to other efforts to raise awareness of Western New York’s central role in the electrification of the planet and the key players involved, namely George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla. This pair of visionaries succeeded in harnessing the mighty Niagara to generate clean alternating current (AC) power. Buffalo Rising readers may have been following the various stories that appeared over the years. Here’s an encapsulated overview:
Efforts began with a grand Tesla Fest in September 2017 at the Barrel Factory in Buffalo’s First Ward, where a period-attired stylish Nikola Tesla dead ringer impersonator joined Victorian dancers, an electronic musician, DJs, a marching band, aerialists and numerous artists in the elaborate celebration. At dusk, a towering 18 ft. tall LED enhanced female figure created by Franklin Lavoie and named “Electra” was gloriously switched on in front of the amazed party goers. The festival attendees and the general public were introduced to the goal of erecting a bronze sculpture of Nikola Tesla in downtown Buffalo. A series of richly illustrated lectures presented by retired Buff State science professor, Dr. Francis Lestingi made local residents more aware of the important Tesla legacy right in their own backyard! Burchfield-Penney Art Center, the Buffalo History Museum, the Buffalo Science Museum, senior centers, public libraries and other venues provided the opportunity to enlighten the community and broaden the conversation.
In September 2020, three years after Tesla Fest, the elegant seven foot tall standing bronze Tesla statue designed by Dr. Lestingi was unveiled at the corner of Main and North Division streets. His right arm holds a symbolic gold leaf lightning bolt aloft. A strategically positioned information panel directs the visitor’s gaze towards the statue with the impressive late 19th century Ellicott Square building as a backdrop. Tesla gave the keynote address there at the “Electric Banquet” on January 12, 1897, when over 400 dignitaries, fellow engineers and investors lauded the inventor and celebrated the success of the recently switched on Niagara generated transmission system. The Buffalo gala is the moment in history marking the pinnacle of Tesla’s astonishing 60 year career. The following month, in October 2020, the green space where the statue resides was officially declared Nikola Tesla Park, the first and only park in the United States named in honor of the man who became a naturalized citizen of the United States on July 30, 1891.
A monumental statue of a seated elderly Tesla holding a large book on his lap has graced Goat Island since it was gifted by the Yugoslavian government in 1976. The lack of an information panel to accompany the statue was rectified in the summer of 2021. In July 2022, a giant sculpture artistically representing a Tesla Coil and also designed by Dr. Lestingi was dedicated in North Tonawanda’s Gratwick-Riverside Park. A plaque affixed to the structure explains the significance and workings of the Tesla Coil. Additional plaques give information about the other regional tributes to Tesla, in what has been collectively named the Tesla Legacy Corridor, running from Niagara Falls through North Tonawanda to Buffalo.
Now a new element with its own inviting pocket park and information panel has arrived to join the other three tributes! (Incredibly, all four tributes are set in parks!) National Grid, realizing the historic significance of their North Tonawanda property, embarked on an ambitious effort to physically restore the exterior of the 1895 building, which had originally served as a transformer facility in the region’s nascent AC system. Major expenses included replacing the huge roof and a great deal of meticulous brickwork on the arched windows and walls. A team of National Grid employees and others, led by Regional Director, Ken Kujawa, met regularly over the past five years to plan and oversee the involved project:
- Brian Key – facilities and real estate manager, National Grid
- Ken Wojciechowski – facilities manager, National Grid
- Jim Kinbaum -VP IPD Engineering
- Ed Mertens – VP Creative director, Integrated Marketing
- David Bertola – corporate affairs manager, National Grid
- Marc Gschwend – jurisdiction manager, National Grid
Ken had remembered how people enjoyed the illuminated holiday wreaths the company placed in the arched windows in past years and envisioned how the windows could be creatively incorporated to illustrate the history and legacy of the building. Team members sought out historic photographs to use for the planned six illustrated mosaic windows.
The five large lower windows feature, from left to right; George Westinghouse, early electric company workers in Buffalo, Tesla sitting in his laboratory with a large Tesla Coil, Niagara Falls surging over the precipice, and finally, a forty-something year old Nikola Tesla in a photo taken close to his time involved with the Buffalo-Niagara power system. The central window at the top of the building features the “Electric Tower,” symbol of Buffalo’s famed 1901 Pan-American Exposition. Nikola Tesla visited the magnificent event and expressed his astonishment about it to the press. The Pan-Am buildings were beautifully outlined and illuminated by tens of thousands of lightbulbs. They were, of course powered by the AC electric energy transmitted from the cascading Falls to the City of Light, a world changing system that the genius, Tesla and industrial giant, Westinghouse had pioneered.
Since National Grid is an electric company they’ve made an extra effort to show off the building at night using the latest technology. There is a bank of efficient LED lights connected to a computer interface that allows them to be programmed in various ways. The lighting effects are a sight to see with its intricate fading in and out and myriad of colors. Seeing it in the daytime is worthwhile too.
There is a gate that is generally unlocked and visitors can enter to see the building unimpeded by a fence. An information panel near the entry gate gives the background of the building and a brief history of the company.
Make a point to visit the now established Tesla Legacy Corridor and this wonderful new attraction along its route.
“Many of Nikola Tesla’s scientific advancements started in Western NY, and North Tonawanda is proud to be a part of The Nikola Tesla Legacy Corridor,” said Austin Tylec, Mayor City of North Tonawanda. “With the new Gratwick Park Tesla Coil monument and the recently renovated Transformer Building in North Tonawanda, Tesla’s legacy will forever be recognized for his contributions to our civilization.”