A smash in the old days, nuclear relic seeks savior

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Anybody want a used atom smasher?

The old Westinghouse smasher has stood at the edge of Forest Hills since 1937. It's five stories tall, looks a bit like a silver light bulb with a big W on two sides, and you can glimpse the top of it from Ardmore Boulevard below if you know where to look. (Look up to the east when you're near Vincent's Pizza, but be quick about it. You're supposed to be looking at the road.)

This thing hasn't smashed an atom since 1958, but a Washington developer says he just paid CBS six figures for it and the 11 surrounding acres, the heart of it fenced off with barbed wire. Gary Silversmith, who'd like to see apartments at the site, hasn't any particular use for the nation's first Van de Graaf nuclear generator. So, gentle reader, do you know anyone who does?

"I'd love to save the atom smasher,'' Mr. Silversmith said, "to find either a user who'd use it at the site or find somebody to move it. I haven't had any luck yet.''

This was the maiden testing ground for the industrial application of nuclear physics, the go-to place for bombarding target atoms with a beam of high-energy particles -- but all fame is fleeting.

Mr. Silversmith checked with the Smithsonian about taking it, but was told it's too big. The Heinz History Center turned it down for the same reason.

How much it would cost to dismantle and truck away for reassembly is anyone's guess, but I expect the deal includes the state historical marker that goes with it. It certainly comes with primo local lore. "Pittsburgh Noir,'' the wonderful story collection published in 2011, opened with Lila Shaara's "Atom Smasher,'' a take on this "fat metal teardrop going the wrong way'' that Alfred Hitchcock would have loved.

The truth is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cleared the site, which straddles the Forest Hills/Chalfant border, for unrestricted use in 2001. Mr. Silversmith says he's climbed up inside the smasher. He emailed photos of interior views that reveal the guts of the tower looking as benign as neatly stacked, Kong-sized Slinkys.

Everybody would like to find a good home for it "in lieu of the wrecking ball, and I do, too,'' Mr. Silversmith said. He's not wedded to the development of apartments. The method his group has used elsewhere is to take an old industrial site and, with a municipality's help, get a state cleanup grant to ready it for resale to another developer.

He's heard ideas for this site ranging from a satellite school campus to a National Museum of Broadcasting (a natural for a Westinghouse tie-in), but those ideas are just that, if there's no money behind them. If no one steps up, the smasher likely gets smashed. There aren't many apartment developers keen to build and sell beneath anything that reminds the buyer of nuclear reactions.

Barry Cassidy, a Canonsburg native who lives in Downingtown, is the grants expert on this project. He likes this assignment so much that the atom smasher tops his Facebook page. So far he's only seen it from across the street on a dark night, but he hopes to get inside next week.

"This is just too cool,'' he said.

On the other hand, it also has scrap value, so "whoever wants an atom smasher has got to have the money.'' He raised the hope that it would have some appeal to a high-tech company led by people who recognize the importance of the artifact. A big corporate campus generally has a place for public art, and wouldn't the first commercial atom smasher nicely symbolize huge corporate ambition.

"I've never sold snow to Eskimos, and I'm not sure if that's what this is or not,'' Mr. Cassidy said. "I don't have a real feel for it.''

Surely, though, the atom smasher should not go begging.

"I think Pittsburgh should step up to the plate and find a home for it,'' he said.

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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