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Light museum battles delays

Creating the National Lighthouse Museum has proved much more difficult than its organizers ever imagined.

Hurdles, particularly the upheaval and shifting budget priorities after the Sept. 11 attack on New York, have resulted in repeated delays in getting the museum up and running on the Staten Island shoreline.

The current timetable calls for one building of exhibits to open at the end of 2004.

And in an effort to hold to that schedule, the museum’s board decided last fall to replace its executive director, Lewis Johnson. He came aboard in 2001 after being hired as a consultant two years earlier to draft a business plan. Johnson, 80, has worked in the exhibit industry for nearly four decades on tasks such as managing construction of pavilions for the 1964 World’s Fair and running the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum.

Johnson, the museum’s second executive director, was ousted by the museum board, whose members were worried the project was not moving as quickly as they had hoped. The trustees want to hire a professional director who could also improve fundraising.

After considering sites around the country, the museum’s founders chose Staten Island five years ago for its proximity to Manhattan and the Staten Island Ferry, and the rich history of the site itself. Just south of the Staten Island Ferry terminal, it was once the home of the U.S. Lighthouse Depot.

“All of the materials that went to lighthouses throughout the country came through Staten Island,” said Gayle Haines, former president of the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society and a member of the museum’s board since it was created in 1996.

The buildings of the old depot have been vacant for three decades, and the musty odor of moldy plaster permeates them. They are graffiti-splashed brick structures with shattered windows and crumbling concrete floors littered with ripped mattresses and trash left by homeless squatters.

While waiting for New York City to restore a building to house the museum, the curators assemble artifacts as large as the 150-foot Nantucket Lightship, and send speakers to schools around the region.

Whenever it opens, the museum will be the only lighthouse museum in the country with a national perspective. “We hope to tell the story of all United States lighthouses, as opposed to one lighthouse,” curator Jim Dunlap said.

— Bill Bleyer