The market in lighthouses is limited, but due to the history of the structures, the challenges of renovation, and the romantic locations, there’s plenty of takers.
By Richard Massey Managing Editor
The market in historic lighthouses might be niche at best, but the ongoing sale and conveyance of these coastal properties present unique opportunities for architects, engineers, and investors who are willing to work with one-of-kind structures in challenging locations.
Offered through the General Services Administration, the governmental agency that oversees surplus properties, the lighthouses end up in the hands of nonprofits, local governments, and private buyers. Most become museums, but at least one – the Graves Light at the mouth of Boston Harbor – is being converted into a high-end summer home.
The program, administered under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, thus far has disposed of 121 lighthouses, with 68 going into stewardship, and 53 being sold outright to buyers for a combined $5.7 million.
Most recently, the Southwest Ledge Lighthouse, the Greens Ledge Lighthouse, and the Penfield Reef Lighthouse, all in Connecticut, were offered up to the public via online auction. Bidding on the Chesapeake Lighthouse in Virginia concluded in July.
Located primarily along the East Coast from Maine to Florida, lighthouses have also been conveyed throughout the Great Lakes region, and in California and Alaska.
The record sales price for a lighthouse was $933,888 by Boston businessman Dave Waller. He purchased the Graves Light at the mouth of Boston Harbor in 2013, and has been renovating the structure since that time. In the process of converting the structure into a summer home for him and his family, the work has consumed him.
“It’s a ton of fun, and it’s all I can think about,” Waller says. “It’s the adventure of a lifetime.”
The lighthouse, built between 1903 and 1905, is 113 feet tall, and when Waller is done with the renovation, it will have seven floors of space, a self-contained system for electricity and waste, and guest quarters in an adjacent oil house. The downtown Boston skyline is visible from Graves, and the rocky outcrop on which it is built is frequently visited by seals.
The Graves project has necessitated the assembly of an all-star team of experts: architect John Chapman, structural engineer John Wathne, and marine engineer Scott Manchester. While life in a lighthouse might seem claustrophobic, Waller says the interior is quite comfortable, complements of his designer.
“He figured out how to carve that thing up,” Waller says.
And while the renovation has been arduous and costly, Waller has no regrets.
“We have our little piece of heaven and we’re happy with it,” he says.
A firm that has found a world of opportunity within the industry is the International Chimney Corp. out of Buffalo, New York. The company has moved five lighthouses, and has restored another 14. Oftentimes working with Expert House Movers out of Maryland, International Chimney has contracted with groups across the Eastern Seaboard beginning in the 1980s.
The firm’s pivot toward lighthouses came out of necessity. Specializing in the construction of radial brick chimneys, otherwise known as smokestacks, work started to dry up as the market changed. Rather than fold, the firm, its ranks filled with expert brick masons, turned its attention to the relocation and preservation of lighthouses.
“We were doing it before it got popular,” says Joe Jakubik, head of International Chimney’s historic preservation division.
Jakubik was part of the team that undertook one of the more celebrated jobs in the lighthouse industry – the 2015 removal of the Gay Head Light from an eroding cliff. Owned by the city of Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard, which gained the GSA conveyance in 2014, the lighthouse is a symbol of civic pride. At 350 tons and 60 feet of height, the 1855 lighthouse is also a monument to 19th century brick masonry. The focus of a NOVA documentary, its $3-million relocation garnered local, state and national attention.
“It’s impressive if you know the terrain,” says Jakubik, referring to the high cliff where Gay Head is located.
A few decades into the market, International Chimney enjoys a solid reputation, which, in turn, has translated into plenty of work. And in a country bounded by oceans on two sides and by the world’s largest gulf on a third, the lighthouse market, at least for the firms interested in that line of work, appears healthy.
“The last few years have been very nice for us,” Jakubik says. “It’s been pretty steady.”