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Building down, but developer says Westinghouse atom smasher preserved

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Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Gary Gardner of Dream Flight Adventures photographs the former Westinghouse atom smasher in Forest Hills, Thursday, July 25, 2013. Gardner and his company considered turning the site into a learning center for the Woodland Hills School District.
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Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
A construction worker walks in front of the Westinghouse Atom Smasher, in Forest Hills, which is being deconstructed, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015.
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Demolition of part of the Westinghouse Atom Smasher continues, in Forest Hills, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015.
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Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
The inside of the former Westinghouse atom smasher in Forest Hills, Thursday, July 25, 2013.
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Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Woodland Hills School Superintendent Alan Johnson stands near the former Westinghouse atom smasher in Forest Hills, Thursday, July 25, 2013. The district considered turning the site into a learning center but doing so was not cost-feasible.

The small brick building may be gone, a developer acknowledges, but he vows the world’s first industrial atom smasher is being preserved.

“The atom smasher will always survive!” Washington, D.C.-based developer Gary Silversmith said Tuesday night after demolition crews leveled the building along the Forest Hills-Chalfant border that housed the towering steel orb known officially as a 1937 van de Graaff particle accelerator.

The accelerator resembles a giant light bulb and was the genesis of the Westinghouse Electric Corp.’s foray into nuclear power.

“We are preserving the bulk of the atom smasher, including the five-story bulb with the large ‘W’ on it,” said Silversmith, whose P&L Investments LLC bought the 11-acre site in 2013 from CBS Corp. with plans to develop residential structures or build home-storage units there.

“Right now the bulb is on the ground, but we are going to establish a new concrete base for it, and keep it at the site, and have the bulb repainted, including the ‘W’ for Westinghouse,” said Silversmith, who bought and restored the USS Sequoia, the former White House yacht. “I love history. I think this is an iconic piece of history.”

“We demolished the old brick building below it, in part because of its significant disrepair, in part because vandals were entering, and in part because of the estimated repair costs to convert it to a new use, e.g., educational building … (were) not economically feasible,” Silversmith said. “Also, we had to properly remove asbestos at the site.”

Woodland Hills school Superintendent Alan N. Johnson had hoped the school district could convert the building into an educational center but said the money wasn’t available.

“The base projections ran over $3 million,” Johnson said. “To fully restore the site could have been upwards of $5 million. We simply don’t have that kind of revenue and there were simply no grant programs of that magnitude available.”

Silversmith said he also offered to donate the atom smasher to many institutions — The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, the Carnegie Science Center and the Sen. John Heinz History Center among them.

“No one would accept it,” he said.

Silversmith said demolition at the abandoned site began about a month ago but that the building housing the atom smasher was not demolished until Tuesday, after he paid Forest Hills $104 for the demolition permit and received verbal approval from borough manager Steve Morus and council vice president Bill Tomasic.

“Council discussed the matter at various meetings and agreed there was really nothing we could do about it,” Morus acknowledged. “It is not our property.”

Neither Tomasic nor a Westinghouse representative could be reached for comment.

Westinghouse built the atom smasher on a hilltop above Route 30 two years before the discovery of nuclear fission, which led to the advancement of nuclear power.

Company scientists used the structure to create nuclear reactions. Research done at the Forest Hills center led in 1940 to the discovery of the photo-fission of uranium, a process involved in nuclear power generation.

The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation has deemed the atom smasher historically significant, a designation that includes no legal protections.

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