I Bought a Lighthouse
I own a lighthouse. Not the little collectible kind that sits on a shelf and collects dust, but a real shining beacon that is a 40-foot-tall, red-and-white, 3,000-square-foot structure made of steel, brick and concrete. It has an enormous beam that radiates 360° and guides mariners and pleasure boaters to safety.
Fairport Harbor West Lighthouse is my summer home. It's also a much-loved building that the federal government let sit idle for more than six decades.
Why buy a lighthouse, especially when it hadn't been on my bucket list, I wasn't going through a mid-life crisis, and I wasn't even a lifelong lighthouse lover? Somehow it fell into my lap.
For a while, I'd considered buying a bed and breakfast or a nice little business to keep me busy in retirement, but then decided a vacation home would make more sense. As a fan of historic homes and buildings, and with some renovation experience under my belt, I began to look around. My criteria included water (lake or ocean), within a few hours' drive of my job in Washington, D.C. and something with character.
I learned the federal government was auctioning off old lighthouses, and I realized this would check off all my boxes. Lighthouses were historic, near water, and had character. In 2008, I came upon a General Services Administration press release titled, "GSA To Hold Public Auctions for Historic Lighthouses." Three years and a very extended auction process later, I became the owner of Fairport Harbor West Lighthouse, officially signing the deed on November 1, 2011.
I was one of the beneficiaries of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, designed to help transfer federally owned lighthouses into private hands. Since the program began, dozens of lighthouses have found new owners. Mine was one of them.
My lighthouse sits on the end of a break wall at the edge of a sheltered harbor of Lake Erie in northeast Ohio, 20 miles east of Cleveland. It was built in 1925 to replace the Grand River Lighthouse, which guided ships into Fairport Harbor and the town of the same name for nearly 100 years.
The U.S. Coast Guard maintains the beacon as an "active aid to navigation." It is run by solar power and blinks on from dusk to dawn. But I own the building, where keepers lived from 1925 to 1948. When I bought it, little was left from its early days as a residence—and I quickly found that both access and renovation would be a significant challenge.
Other than taking a boat to the crumbling steps on the east side of the platform, the only way to get there is through a state park, across the protected dunes, along the beachfront and finally climbing up onto the rocky and very uneven break wall. While it provides a great workout, the walk is tedious and can be downright dangerous when waves or wind batter the rocks. And then there's the final step: scaling a 10-foot ladder to the platform from the boulders below.
The limited access complicated the extensive renovation work needed. The first time I pulled open the massive cast iron door of Fairport Harbor West and walked inside as the new owner, it looked sad and empty. There was little light except what streamed through the broken glass of the few windows that weren't boarded up. A few scraggly wires hung from a decades-old electrical panel—even though there was no source of electricity from the mainland. Dusty plaster had fallen from the walls and lay in piles. Cigarette butts and empty plastic drink bottle littered the floors. There were no doors in the doorways, no plumbing pipes, no furniture. One of the only original items that remained intact was the massive cast-iron circular staircase leading from the first floor. Everything else that could have been carried off was gone.
I knew I couldn't do all the renovations myself, so I enlisted the help of friends and local volunteers. Many friends helped either because they knew I was over my head, or they thought it would be a novel experience. I did what I could to recruit volunteers. Some were people who walked or paddled by to see what was happening to the lighthouse they thought was abandoned. Some read about me in the local newspaper. I once commandeered a troop of Girl Scouts out for a nature walk and convinced them to help me wash windows, then paid them with a personal tour and granola bars. I enlisted an ambitious group of teenagers on the last day of school to carry a mattress down the break wall. For a small cash tip, they readily agreed and trotted off with the mattress above their heads like ants with a meal.
Undeterred, or perhaps incredibly naïve, I walked the break wall weekend after weekend with a backpack filled with supplies. Once my backpack was so heavy that as I attempted to get up on the break wall, I fell backwards in the sand, landing like an upside-down turtle. The break wall is not my friend.
I decided first to repair and refurbish the windows, since they were the primary source of both light and fresh air. I was also determined to paint every wall and ceiling to stop the plaster from flaking off. Since the lighthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places, I conferred with the Ohio State Preservation Office and learned about the importance of the three Rs: Restore, Refurbish, Repair – the preferred way of renovating historic buildings.
At the beginning, I hired a general contractor, a move which quickly turned to disaster when I had to take him to court for billing me for work that was never completed. Fortunately, the electrician was reliable and completely rewired the building to code, so now I have lights and power run by a generator. I occasionally used skilled craftsmen to preserve as much of the historical components as possible – including the original windows and hardwood floors.
One of my longtime volunteers, a house painter by trade, painted the outside, scaling long ladders and strapping himself to the roof like Spiderman. After using 80 gallons of paint inside and 50 gallons of marine grade (read: expensive!) paint outside, the building shines like new.
Today, while some renovation work continues, the lighthouse is generally livable; some might call it "glamping" – glamourous camping. There's a fully equipped modern kitchen, two bedrooms upstairs, a bunk room in the basement, a combination of antique and modern furniture, pictures on the walls, sheets and towels (all delivered by boat). But no running water.
When keepers lived there in the first half of the 20th century, water was taken from Lake Erie and sewage was returned back into the lake. Since neither of those practices is possible today, it has been a long and arduous task to find the appropriate off-the-grid system for both rainwater collection and treatment and sewage disposal, as well as receive permits. I make do with a composting toilet, lots of hand sanitizer, and a shower in the lake or at the nearby park.
Did buying a lighthouse from the government for a summer home mean more time, work and money than I anticipated? Definitely. Were people (friends, family and strangers) skeptical that I could do it? Certainly. Would I do it again? Absolutely. I'm proud to have saved and restored Fairport Harbor West and added the title "lighthouse keeper" to my name.
There's nothing like owning a unique piece of American history with water on all sides, a killer view from the top, and a state park as my front yard. For me, it's the perfect summer home.
When she's not at the lighthouse in summers, Sheila Consaul works in Washington, D.C., as a communications and marketing consultant.