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Lighthouses you can call home

The federal government has declared a dozen beacons excess property and is giving them away

When Robert G. Müller sees Race Rock Light come into view during a boat tour of Long Island Sound lighthouses, he sees beyond its quaint Gothic Revival keeper’s house to a rich 132-year history of warning yachts, ships and fishing boats away from the rocks and strong tidal race that lie just southwest of New York’s Fishers Island.

Race Rock Light

Müller knows the stories of this light — the ships that grounded here before keepers lit its fourth-order Fresnel lens in 1879; the complexities of erecting the light on a rock ledge strewn with boulders in The Race, where a treacherous and fast-moving surge of water pours into and out of Long Island Sound several times a day; and the yellowed photographs of light keepers and their families.

“I see the keepers’ names, the pictures of their families, the hard lives they lived and the stories of what happened out there,” says Müller, a South Shore Long Islander who wrote “Long Island’s Lighthouses: Past and Present” (Patchogue, N.Y., 2004, Long Island Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society).
Among the things that happened out there: During the early stages of the light’s seven years of construction a cache of gunpowder aboard the steamer Wallace blew up, killing the vessel’s engineer and two construction workers.
Race Rock is one of a dozen historic lighthouses that the Government Services Administration has declared excess federal property. On June 7 it offered to give them away at no cost to an eligible government entity, non-profit corporation, historic preservation group or community development organization.
“The No. 1 reason [most of] these lights are being listed is the structures are deteriorating, and the Coast Guard budget for maintaining properties like these is being squeezed and redirected,” says Coast Guard cultural resources specialist Daniel Koski-Karell.
The Coast Guard wants to give the structures and the land they sit on to people who can properly maintain the brick and mortar while the Coast Guard continues to maintain the light as a navigational aid, he says. “It is a free transfer,” Koski-Karell says. “But [the new owner] has to have the resources to rehabilitate the property and make it available for public visitation.”
If no non-profit or government entity steps forward to take over a property, the light goes up for auction to the highest bidder, who can use it for virtually any legal purpose, subject to having the proper licenses and permits. Again, high bidders must show they can restore and maintain the property.
The 14-foot Bank Lighthouse on Delaware Bay sold at auction in 2007 for $200,000 to Nevada lawyer and businessman Michael C. Gabriel, who wanted to turn the offshore lighthouse into a summer retreat for himself. He hoped to install a microbrewery in one of the rooms so he could make beer and sell it ashore to offset maintenance costs.
Some private owners turn their lighthouses into bed and breakfasts. The DeTour Reef Light Preservation Society, which has owned the DeTour Reef (Michigan) Lighthouse since last year and leased it from the Coast Guard for 20 years before that, invites volunteer keepers to stay in the keeper’s house during tourist season while they work as docents, gift shop managers and custodians.
Amenities include a 1931 GE Hotpoint electric range with an oven and a warming drawer, an electric refrigerator, a coffee maker, a toaster and a microwave oven; an office with a restored 1930s rolltop desk, a marine radio and a glass-front bookcase; a modern bathroom with running hot and cold purified water; and a double bed and two bunk beds. There is no television.
And the light is remote. It lies a mile off the mouth of the St. Mary’s River in Lake Huron, notable for its big seas. Koski-Karell says he and his family stayed there during a stormy weekend and saw breaking waves wash up to the light’s second-story windows, not unusual for an offshore light.
Koski-Karell estimates the Coast Guard has divested itself of 60 to 80 lighthouses since it inaugurated the ownership transfer program in 2000. “We’ve got another 100 or so to go,” he says.
Buying a lighthouse is not for the faint of heart, says Bob Muller of Brunswick, Maine, (no relation to Robert G. Müller). Muller and a group of social media aficionados who paid $49 apiece to join his Internet-based Ram Island Ledge Lighthouse Community tried to buy that lighthouse at the mouth of the Portland, Maine, outer harbor last year. They planned to equip it with sensors so they could see and hear the wind and waves, and experience sunrises and sunsets and the air and sea temperatures vicariously over the Internet, both in streaming video and data streams.
Muller’s group lost out to Dr. Jeffrey Florman, who bought the light at auction with a bid of $190,000. “Buying the lighthouse is the least of your cost,” Muller says. “It’s magnitudes less [than the final cost of ownership], depending on the light’s condition.”
Muller estimates renovation costs at $500,000 to $1 million because most lights have been neglected since their automation in the 1970s. Expect “inches of guano, vandalism, broken windows, things stripped out,” he says. “Every lighthouse has been vandalized and stripped of everything of value.”
The logistics of getting to an offshore lighthouse, which most of the lighthouses on the 2011 excess property list are, is daunting. “Buying a piece of timber is pretty cheap,” he says. “It’s getting it out there that costs so much.” Yet Muller says he and his lighthouse community are back in the hunt to buy a light at auction, though he won’t say which one.
Robert Müller hopes Race Rock Light will draw interest. The light is “about as iconic as they come,” he says, but the waters there are treacherous and that’s a deterrent to accessibility.
Located at the east end of Long Island Sound, The Race is 75 to 80 feet deep around the light, but depths nearby drop to 300 feet, says Jeff Dziebzic, who leads lighthouse cruises out of Groton, Conn. When the tide pours through The Race, the water swirls in eddies and whirlpools, setting up a series of jarring rips.
“It can get nasty there,” he says.

At least 19 groups are vying for the stately Point Tuna Light on Puerto Rico's southeast coast.

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This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue.