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Hopeful Beacons

Project: St. George Lighthouse, St. George Island, FL
Architect: Kenneth Smith Architects, Inc., Jacksonville, FL

Project: Southeast Lighthouse, Block Island, RI
Architect: Newport Collaborative Architects, Inc., Providence, RI; Olga Bachilova, director of historic preservation

By Eve M. Kahn

Lighthouses can only function when vigilantly protected from environmental hazards. And in the past decade, loyal volunteer groups across the country have mobilized to help the government defend these romantic, vulnerable, remote structures. Century-old towers still shine beams that guide navigating ships only thanks to millions of dollars in donations, and countless hours of pro bono work. A few of the coastal sites might not even have any architecture left standing at all, if not for the nonprofits and their consultants who specialize in lighthouse work.

Probably the U.S.'s most dramatic recent rescue of an endangered lighthouse has occurred on St. George Island, a barrier island off the Florida Panhandle. The 1852 brick building was the third lighthouse on the island tip – two short-lived predecessors had fallen during storms. In 2000, after the 77-ft.-tall tower had developed a Pisa-like unnerving lean, inferior concrete was poured around its base for reinforcement. On a calm afternoon in October, 2005, it collapsed into the surf just as a tourist was hiking to visit it. "The state park workers had to tell him he was an hour too late," says Dennis Barnell, president of the St. George Lighthouse Association, a preservation advocacy group founded in 2004.

Within a few months of the catastrophe, the association rented naval landing craft to salvage hundreds of thousands of fallen bricks, as well as cracked stone trim, copper roofing and the octagonal iron lantern room. The artifacts, hauled to a mainland workshop, did not look promising. But the association's website (www.stgeorgelight.org) bravely continued to post updates on reconstruction plans and announce work sessions for volunteers to clean and prepare the salvage for reuse. "Don't be discouraged by the images of the battered bricks and twisted iron," the website urged.

The most useful inspirational tools, Barnell says, only half-joking, were "beer and camaraderie." Volunteers were plied with refreshments after spending hours wielding rotary hammer drills (donated by Lowe's and Home Depot) to break up masonry chunks and chisel off mortar. The group also devoted days to selling chili at booths in local fairs and auctioning off paintings of the lighthouse. By late 2006, the association had raised enough funding to commission a replica of the hopelessly corroded lantern room from Allen Architectural Metals of Talladega, AL.

The thermal-galvanized cage of iron and steel was assembled on a platform at a site that the county donated for lighthouse reconstruction: a public park along the island's main road. Architect Kenneth Smith was brought in to provide design and construction documents. He based them on vintage photos and drawings, as well as his experience surveying and restoring lighthouses across Florida and Georgia. The state had sent him to evaluate the original St. George tower a few years before it fell: "It had a slight cant to it," he recalls. "There was water around it at high tide, the staircase and lighting apparatus were gone, and there was talk of eventually moving it to someplace safer."

Exactly two years after the 1852 version fell, ground was broken for its replica, which cost $700,000. On concrete pilings sunk up to 40-feet deep, bricklayers copied the original wythe and rowlock patterns. New bricks were reserved for the outer shell, which has been coated in acrylic-painted stucco, while vintage cleaned bricks were kept visible inside the stairwell. Contractors for the project were Crenshaw Concrete of Eastpoint, FL, and Masonry, Inc. of Tallahassee, FL.

Since the building opened in December, 2008, nearly 2,000 visitors per month have climbed the 92 heart-pine steps and peered through slit windows framed by cypress shutters. "A lot of people tell us, 'I can't believe y'all were able to do this,'" Barnell reports. He is coping now with a very short punchlist: one window is leaking, the tower ventilation needs better flow, and the light needs to be adjusted so that it does not disturb nesting sea turtles. "But those are easy problems," he says, "compared to what we've been through."

Phase after phase of heroics have likewise been required at Block Island's Southeast Lighthouse, which has been hauled around the Rhode Island coast and lost much historic fabric along the way. When it opened in 1875, the lighthouse was considered state of the art. Its three-gabled, three-story body contained mirror-image quarters for two keepers' families as well as a 16-sided lantern room. The keepers oversaw a first-order Fresnel lens (the strongest beams, which the government reserved for crucial seacoast lights) as well as foghorns powered by steam engines.

There was one flaw in the original engineering: the site choice. "The local farmers had warned the government not to build there," explains Dr. Gerald F. Abbott, president of the Southeast Lighthouse Foundation. "The cliff is a terminal moraine. Chunks have steadily, dramatically fallen off. We'd lose as much as a quarter of an acre at a time." By the early 1990s, the Coast Guard planned to demolish the lighthouse, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation had twice placed it on the "most endangered" list.

Abbott's group managed to raise $2.3 million to haul the brick mass 300 feet inland. The foundation, based on recommendations from Newport Collaborative Architects (NCA), has spent much of the past decade raising another $1.2 million to solve structural and cosmetic problems. (Funding has come from private donations and government agencies; the project even qualified for a state "transportation enhancement" grant.) Doors and porch gingerbread were missing, the tower's steel windows were boarded up, asphalt roofing had replaced the original slates, and stone copings and brick chimneys were failing.

"We found that moisture had penetrated every wall," explains Olga Bachilova, NCA's director of historic preservation. Her team strategized to save maximum historic fabric – down to the window pulleys and counterweights – during the thorough restoration. The building was kept open to visitors as contractor YSC, Inc., of Harvard, MA, brought the corbelled chimneys back to their original heights, clad the roof in North Country Black slate, and patched coping with Westerly Pink granite from the original quarry source. "I took a chunk of coping and walked around the quarry until I found the matching vein," says Bachilova.

The architects performed similar detective feats while specifying woodwork. To reproduce lost turned balusters and chamfered posts, they scrutinized a vintage portrait of a keeper's family posing on the porch. Paint analysis of some surviving porch parts showed half-a-dozen original colors, in shades of mint and taupe, hidden under 26 layers of newer paint. A chunk of damaged baseboard turned out to have a penciled model number on the back, "8174." Bachilova promptly scoured the office's library of old millwork literature for a related numbering system, and found that exact 8174 profile in an 1890s catalog. "All the moldings turned out to be off-the-shelf components," says J. Michael Abbott, an NCA founding principal.

The eruditely planned restoration has proceeded in fits and starts: "The winters are so harsh there, we literally can't work off season," Michael Abbott says. And there's yet another phase on the boards now: the twin keepers' quarters will eventually contain a museum and a rental suite complete with ADA-compliant bathroom for B&B guests. "This is an unusually beautiful lighthouse, and unusually accessible to the public – it's a great educational tool," Michael Abbott adds. Gerald Abbott adds that "with every phase we've completed, there's been more excitement generated. People always love to see this working aid to navigation, one of the last working first-order Fresnel lenses in America. They're always eager to see what we've done lately." TB

 

 

 
 

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