Three historic lighthouses up for grabs, Penfield included
Scourge of neglect remains a threat
Published 12:15 pm, Saturday, July 20, 2013
FAIRFIELD -- House for sale. Four bedrooms. Historic. Expansive views of Long Island Sound. Secluded location and solid granite construction.
You would expect to pay a few million bucks for a place like that, so you might be happy to learn that it'll likely sell for less than $50,000. But before you call your real estate agent for a drive-by you might want to know that the house, in this case, is more than a mile offshore, there's no electricity or plumbing, and it'll need about $500,000 in repairs to make it livable.
The house is the historic Penfield Reef Lighthouse, one of three in the state that the federal government wants to unload. If you still think you'd like to put in an offer, be forewarned: Many who have attempted to buy lighthouses only have bills from their attorneys left as souvenirs.
The waters off Penfield Beach are regarded as the most dangerous of the Connecticut shoreline, which is why in 1870 Congress allocated $30,000 for the lighthouse. On Jan. 16, 1874, the light was lit and the foghorn sounded.
The first floor is granite block, and the second floor has wood-frame construction. Originally, there were four bedrooms on the second floor and a kitchen and living room were on the first level. Also on the first floor was the "oil room," where fuel oil was stored for the lamp. Heat for cooking and warmth came from a combination of coal and wood.
During much of its active life, Penfield had three or four men living there, one "keeper'" and two or three assistants. These men -- there were at least two husband-wife teams -- were civilian federal employees of the United States Lighthouse Service, which merged with the Coast Guard in 1939, according to Terry Pepper, executive director of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association.
"Since the Coast Guard was a paramilitary organization, a lot of the keepers left the service in 1939," he said.
Turnover at the Penfield light was high, with most keepers discovering that manning a lighthouse was not quite as idyllic as imagined. Boredom was a constant adversary.
The Coast Guard manned the light until it was automated in 1971, at which point it considered tearing it down and replacing it with a light on a steel support, but locals objected. With help from then-Congressman Lowell Weicker and State Representative Stewart McKinney, the light was saved.
Saved from demolition, but not from slow degradation. In 2000, fears that the light would collapse into the lower level forced emergency repairs. While the lighthouse is secure to the elements, its interior is in shambles.
"If that light comes down, people in Fairfield can subtract 10 percent from the value of their homes," said Kaye Williams, who operates the nearby Captain's Cove Seaport in Bridgeport's Black Rock Harbor. But in spite of all of the love that people have for lighthouses, finding someone -- anyone -- willing to put up the money to restore and maintain historic lights is difficult, particularly for those lights that can only be reached by water.
The Penfield Light has been up for sale by the federal government's General Services Administration since 2007. It's about 1.3 miles offshore and there were even squabbles over the pile of rocks on which it sits. Some say it's in Bridgeport waters, others say Fairfield.
State oyster ground charts, which also determine criminal jurisdictional lines, have it firmly in Bridgeport.
Now these so-called "bottomlands" belong to the state. The federal government awarded control of the lighthouse to Beacon Preservation, which owns another historic light in Maine, several years ago, but that deal fell through when Beacon couldn't get ownership of the rock pile.
"I'd love to see somebody acquire it, renovate it to historical standards and maintain it as a great landmark for the region," said Fairfield First Selectman Michael Tetreau. "But the federal government wants way too much money for it, and the requirements on the purchaser are onerous. The amount of money that you'd have to put into it and the restrictions on renovating it make it difficult to make the financing work."
Too costly even for the town of Fairfield, whose elected officials have to justify to their taxpayers the logic of spending many thousands of dollars on a piece of property that most people would only see through a pair of binoculars.
"We've tried to get it, but even if they gave it to the town, with their restrictions, we'd have to spend $450,000 to fix it up they way they want," Tetreau said. "It's dangerous to get out there so even school groups wouldn't have access to it. And the next storm could take it down, so you'd be on the hook for all of the money you poured into it."
As for a potential owner, Tetreau said he's heard rumors, "but not anything credible."
Officials note that any potential owner would have to comply with the The National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, which states that in addition to maintaining the light, it "must make the station available for education, park, recreation, cultural or historic preservation purposes for the general public at reasonable times and under reasonable conditions."
So, if you want to buy a lighthouse and turn it into your own private hide-away, forget it.
Eyes on the Sound
To Chris German, CEO of the nonprofit boating advocacy group Connecticut Community Boating, federal and state governments are letting down the nation by unloading lighthouses.
"These are national historic treasures," German said. "Sure, there will always be a light there, but a light is not enough. You need eyes to go along with the light, and that's what's so important to protecting boaters -- and the rest of us, too."
German says lighthouses manned by human beings could go a long way in preventing the next terrorist attack.
"In this post-9/11 world, Long Island Sound could be thought of as the I-95 to New York City," German said.
"We will balance private interest with public benefit and save these structures for the public for years to come," he said. "We have the know-how, the vessels and the organization to do it, but we need the will and the support of the public to do it."
Lights for sale
Connecticut is home to 20 historic lighthouses, most built between 1800 and 1920. Many are only familiar to boaters because they're in out-of-the-way locations. The Stratford Shoal Lighthouse, for example, is so far out in the Sound there's debate on whether it belongs to New York or Connecticut.
Some, like New Haven's Five Mile Point Lighthouse, are owned by municipalities. Two are in private hands -- the Morgan Point Lighthouse in Groton's Noank section and the Stamford Harbor Ledge Light. Still others, although owned by the federal government, are kept up by private foundations, like the New London Ledge Light and the Falkner's Island Light off the coast of Groton.
Some are owned outright by historical groups; the Stonington Harbor Light is owned and operated by the Stonington Historical Society.
The GSA is seeking a nonprofit organization to take over the New Haven Ledge Light, one of the more impressive lights in the Northeast. One of the groups in the running is the New London Ledge Lighthouse Foundation, which is already striving to maintain the 104-year-old icon, according to Todd Gipstein, president of the foundation.
And like the Penfield Reef Light, the Saybrook Breakwater Light at the mouth of the Connecticut River -- and a stone's throw from Katharine Hepburn's former home -- is for sale.
German says the Saybrook Light, of the so-called "spark plug" design, holds a special place among anyone interested in Connecticut lore and history. It is, after all, depicted on the state's "Preserve the Sound" marker plate.
Even with deep pockets, buying a lighthouse from the GSA is a challenge.
There are two steps in the GSA's lighthouse unloading process. First, the GSA attempts offer the lighthouse to the state or a non-profit historic preservation group. This is what's happening with the New London Ledge Light. If there are no takers that meet GSA requirements, the property is auctioned to the highest bidder, as is the case with the Saybrook and Penfield lights.
Buyers typically have to comply with a raft of terms and conditions; the Penfield light, for example, comes with 25 pages of requirements that a new owner has to comply with, including allowing the Coast Guard "unrestricted access" to repair and maintain the light.
There's also a host of other challenges facing the owner if he or she wants to make the place livable.
"The place has some asbestos and lead issues," German said.
He also pointed out that living on a lighthouse out on the Sound isn't much different than living on an old boat. There's no indoor plumbing. Sea water is used for washing dishes and the like, and drinking water has to be brought from the mainland. Bathing would be a challenge. As for the toilet, a bucket would have to suffice, just like the keepers used in the old days.
"But you don't have that option now," German said. "You can't dump anything into the Sound."
Reporter Genevieve Reilly contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org; 203-330-6403; http://twitter.com/johnburgeson