As more and more of the nation’s historic lighthouses have moved from government to private hands, leading preservationists, lighthouse enthusiasts and coastal boaters are wondering whether this will save these landmarks or allow them to crumble and be swept away by the sea. “There’s no way to know, when somebody buys one, what they’re going to do with it,” says Dave Waller, who in 2013 bought Graves Light Station off the coast of Boston. “It’s out of the government’s control, once they sell it. They can’t take it back, really. It’s a sale, and it’s done.”
The trend of selling lighthouses into private hands has its roots in the year 2000.
The expense of maintaining lighthouses was weighing down the U.S. Coast Guard’s budget, so the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act was enacted to create a process for the free handover of excess lighthouses to federal agencies, nonprofit groups and state and local governments. Failing a free handover, the act allowed lighthouses to be sold at a public auction with a covenant that the Coast Guard could still get access to maintain the aid to navigation.
The first few years, all the excess lighthouses were handed over through stewardship transfers. But in 2005, according to a report by the GSA Office of Real Property Utilization and Disposal, three lighthouses were sold to private owners. They were the first to be sold under the act, although that year, and for the majority of years through 2013, stewardship transfers still outpaced public sales. But as of 2014-15, the ratio inverted and more lighthouses were sold than transferred. In 2015, six went to public sales while only one was handed over in a stewardship transfer. According to Barbara Salfity, supervisory realty specialist with GSA, currently it is about a 50-50 split between nonprofits and sales. “Lighthouses take a lot of resources to maintain,” she says. “Resources are more readily available in the private sector.”
Restoring a lighthouse is a romantic notion, but the reality can be tough. According to Jeff Gales, executive director of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, all the easier projects have already been snapped up. “The lion’s share of the lighthouses around the U.S. that are easy to get to, that you can drive to, that are accessible to most people, they already are open to the public,” Gales says. “The trend now for the Coast Guard is getting rid of all these offshore lights, the ones that are hard to restore. Nonprofits and historical societies find those untenable. They can’t figure out a way to fix the place up and then create access, so the lights sell to the highest bidder.”
Waller’s purchase of Graves Light—which is nine miles offshore from the city of Boston and dates back to the early 1900s—remains the highest-priced sale under the program to date. He paid $933,888 for the structure. The Waller family has spent the past six years pouring money into Graves Light, ultimately taking on a financial partner because of the expenses. Numerous experts say Waller is setting the gold standard for privately funded lighthouse restorations, but they acknowledge that it takes a special combination of resources, time and personal passion to succeed.
“The logistics can seem very daunting,” says Waller. “I run the boat out every day to bring the crew out, and then I’ll spend a couple of hours looking at everything. I then go to Home Depot to make sure the contractors have everything they need. It’s more than money. That’s half of it, but you can’t just shoot a money gun and get what you want.”
“The Wallers are a family using all of their personal resources to restore this to historic condition, and it’s their weekend getaway,” Salfity says. “Then you have other people renovating lighthouses but not using them a lot, and you have other people renovating them as Airbnbs and using the money to put back into restoration of the structure.”
Some private owners do not allow the general public to visit their lighthouses. The lack of public access to huge pieces of U.S. maritime history is a real concern for folks like Gales. “The whole point of the lighthouse divestiture process that was pushed forward in 2000 with the Lighthouse Preservation Act was to prevent light stations from being put into private hands like they had been in the past,” he says. “When a historical light station goes to the highest bidder, they can put a fence up, and all of the sudden, it’s not able to be accessed by anybody anymore. The whole point of the divestiture process was to give nonprofits, county groups and states a way to get these lights with the understanding that there would still be public access to these important historical landmarks.”
Then again, Gales says, he’s seen nonprofits with great intentions fail, which means not only a lack of public access, but also the lighthouse outright falling apart. “That’s when private bidders are wonderful,” Gales says. “Nobody is more impressed with the Graves Light restoration than me. This man is amazing. What he’s done is inspiring to anyone looking to preserve a lighthouse.”
But because the transfers to private hands under the 2000 act are so relatively new, it remains uncertain whether Graves Light will become the norm or the exception for privately owned lighthouses.
“It’s a little bit early to tell,” Gales says. “I would say that 100 percent of the lighthouses that are accessible and owned by nonprofits or local government are generating income for renovations and creating access for the public. The ones being transferred right now, the ones that are remote, it’s still a question mark whether those lighthouses will be successful or not.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue.