If you saw it, you know that Matt Damon unwittingly bought a zoo in the movie by a similar name. It simply came with the house.
But those who buy lighthouses are, in a word, deliberate, and, by their own admission maybe a little out of their depth. Tackling the restoration or renovation of a century-old (many older) rusting, decaying, sometimes listing or structurally dangerous icon, and adding in stringent 21st century code and in some cases historic preservation requirements is not for the faint of heart. In short, transforming an historic navigational aid into a modern vacation home isn’t for the typical weekend warrior – unless one has free weekends for the next five years – nor does it come with an instruction manual. But it definitely has its merits. Those who own them are proud curators of a bygone era.
Lighthouse historian Jeremy D’Entremont, who has chronicled lighthouse life and lore for nearly 30 years, confirms that ownership can be daunting, time-consuming and definitely costly – especially in the beginning. In fact some new owners who appear to be getting a bargain invest as much as five times what they paid for a property in its metamorphosis. While not compelled to own one himself, D’Entremont, who’s penned many dozens of lighthouse articles and books, maintains that stewardship of these fading anthems is an important component of possession. “And among the many challenges are plumbing, electrical (many rely on generators) and accessibility issues, where age and weather may have rendered docks (for access) unusable,” he said. Consequently ferrying work crews and materials back and forth to the site may prove painstaking and exhausting at best, especially for those lights that are miles out in the open ocean.
What’s more, many lighthouses are still considered active aids to navigation, or ATONs, which means a private owner must work with the Coast Guard to facilitate their continued use as such.
Preserve and protect
Because these briny beacons bear testimony to another epoch, in an effort to perpetuate as much of their legacy as possible the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act (NHLPA), enacted in 2000, has made many of these maritime monuments available. To acquire them, qualified federal agencies, state and local governments, nonprofit organizations (these at no cost), and the public, at a cost, can bid through the General Services Administration’s (the federal government’s real estate arm) online auction site. According to GSA branch chief Barbara Salfity, there are two phases when a lighthouse or related maritime property is offered, the first being to nonprofits, local government and other historical and educational entities. If no sale transpires, the GSA moves on to a public sale phase. In fact, to date 32 lighthouses have passed into private ownership this way.
A lighthouse runs through it
For Nick Korstad, learning to handle a boat (an inflatable kayak was used to ferry paint, etc. at first) was among the first steps in lighthouse ownership. An Oregon transplant to tiny Fall River, Massachusetts, Korstad jettisoned his food and beverage management job to relocate to the site of the tower-on-caisson spark plug style 1881 Borden Flats Lighthouse he purchased in 2011.
Passionate about lighthouses since he was 7 or 8 years old, he admits dragging his parents and brother around the country as a child to view them. “I must have been a lighthouse keeper in a past life,” Korstad quipped, admitting he and his family, who come out to help him renovate from time to time, have had their share of paranormal experiences at Borden Flats. In fact this year Korstad will be opening his lighthouse to overnight guests who, in addition to the novelty of a night in a seaworthy cylinder, may be privy to the same “little girl giggles” (Korstad said she actually spoke to them in the beginning, approving the family’s color palette) and someone whistling. “A woman also hums,” Korstad said.
Vacant since 1963, Korstad obtained his property through a GSA auction and admits “the government doesn’t sell anything that’s turnkey.” Maintained primarily by a few exterior paint jobs over 50 years, Korstad said the damage and amount of work involved has been immeasurable. “The first time we painted it, we used 70 gallons of paint,” he said of the structure. Former owner of a Virginia lighthouse, Korstad said he’d been approved for an improvement loan but in the end no bank will lend on a lighthouse because it is not considered real estate. Selling the property, he made a small profit which went into an account for a future lighthouse endeavor which turned out to be Borden Flats.
“The first one was too far out at sea anyway,” Korstad recalled, something that became apparent in his quest to educate himself on lighthouse proprietorship. For Borden Flats, while admitting he continues to funnel money into its renovation, Korstad prudently acquired all the furnishings from consignment stores. Family heirlooms (plates; artwork) decorate the space, and Korstad himself is a fine art photographer with a collection of lighthouses he has photographed on the walls.
“The light is still active and the Coast Guard has the keys,” Korstad said.
Rock of acres
The Graves Light Station, built in 1905 and on the National Register of Historic Places, has been green-lighted for auction. Located 9 miles from Boston on The Graves – the outermost island of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area – the GSA’s Salfity said there is “no limitation on the reuse of these properties” when sold. However reuse must comply with standards established by the relative preservation entity, in this case the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
Five stories high and made of granite quarried from neighboring Cape Ann, The Graves Light Station with its 113-foot tower is poised on 10 acres: all islands of rock. According to Salfity, two out-structures that flanked the light, connected to it by bridges, were originally part of the property. The first was decimated by October, 1991’s The Perfect Storm, and the second more recently sacrificed to another storm. An adjacent oil house remains standing, however, and lighthouse accessibility is by boat and a ladder that ascends 30 feet to the entrance.
At The Graves’ basement level, two tanks exist: a cistern once collected rainwater and the other contained fuel for the light. The first floor is open storage space, with the second a former engine room. The next two levels are living space, and Salfity said the light space itself is in “reasonably good shape” with white enameled subway tiles and original mahogany handrails. Though not occupied since the 1970s, Salfity explained it is still used as an ATON.
“It’s always on,” she said. Consequently whoever purchases it will have a covenant with the Coast Guard that allows them to maintain it.
Opening bids of $10,000 are mandated via deposit, and the property will be available for inspection in June with an anticipated closing a few weeks later. firstname.lastname@example.org
A room with a 360-degree view
Sited near buoy #9 on the Acushnet River and New Bedford Harbor in the eponymous city, New Bedford is defined by its mythical whaling heritage. The four-story Butler Flats Light, born in 1898 and younger sibling to Race Rock Light off New York’s Fisher’s Island, was designed by engineer Francis Hopkinson Smith. Famous for building the foundation for the Statue of Liberty, Smith built Butler Flats for a total of $34,000 in the tower-on-caisson spark plug style with a cast iron exterior and red brick interior.
“The interior is very well preserved without a lot of water damage,” said the GSA’s Sara Massarello, something not always ascribed to the nation’s 600 lighthouses – 400 of which still actively aid navigation.
Four levels are comprised of a storage basement, living quarters, office space and a watch room. Glass block windows – possible replacements for broken glass along the way – and port holes provide a variety of ocean views. A larger, well-preserved watch deck with an overhang is visible on the first level, and another watch deck surrounds the light. Decommissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1978, Bristol County House of Correction inmates later rewired the electrical system, sanded walls, stairwells and ceilings, and replaced the floors.* Though currently not considered an official U.S. ATON it is nevertheless a “private aid to navigation,” per Massarello, deemed important to its harbor by the City of New Bedford. In this respect, the buyer must interface with the city in terms of a conservatory agreement. Access is by a 20-foot metal ladder up. email@example.com
Resurrected from an October GSA offering where a portion of the parcel was offered, sans fog signal station, the USCG more recently decommissioned Maine’s Manana Island’s 1855 landmark fog station, on the National Register of Historic Places, so that it’s all for sale. Though not a lighthouse, and following an opening bid and deposit of $10,000, the proud owner can claim 0.18 acres with a two-story, wood frame, 2,958 s.f. keeper’s quarters (unoccupied for 20 years) and attached deck, stone-and-brick storage and fog signal buildings, and an accruing wood signal tower constructed in 1889. Also included are a dock and boat landing.
Within the purview of its larger neighbor, the artist-enclaved Monhegan Island, Manana’s sound signal station was the Pavlov’s dog to Monhegan’s lighthouse, now the property of the Monhegan Island Historical Society. Taking its cue when the lighthouse keeper pressed a button that activated a gong in the fog signal keeper’s bedroom, the latter sounded a warning signal to all the proverbial ships at sea (at least those in the vicinity). The site is part of an historic district, consequently renovations will have adhere to guidelines established by the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. firstname.lastname@example.org
Said lighthouse owner Korstad of the whole experience, and obstacles withstanding, “…I’m beyond grateful for the opportunity I’ve been handed. Restoring Borden Flats has been a dream come true – a dream that’s reclaimed a piece of history slowly being consumed by nature.”
For more information about lighthouse preservation and ownership, visit the American Lighthouse Foundation at www.lighthousefoundation.org.
For government auctions: www.realestatesales.gov.
To reserve a stay at Borden Flats: www.bordenflats.com.
Website for Jeremy D’Entremont: www.newenglandlighthouses.net.
By Beth Hughes
Some photos courtesy of Jeremy D’Entremont