Centuries Old, Montauk Lighthouse Budgets For A Face Lift
Work to prevent the historic Montauk Point Lighthouse from slipping into the ocean has started this month. The Army Corp of Engineers will bolster the shore with stones to protect the national landmark from erosion. But a full renovation of its tower is still necessary because of damage from over two centuries of extreme weather.
It’s been the mission of Joe Gaviola and the Montauk Historical Society to keep the lighthouse standing.
He wakes up every morning in the 19th Century lighthouse keeper’s residence on premise. His job is to maintain the Montauk Lighthouse.
“I'm here 365 days a year,” said Gaviola, a clean shaven and finely dressed banker.
“You look at these gnarly guys,” he said, pointing at the photographs of the lighthouse keepers of the olden days. “This guy is in central casting out of Hollywood. Look at these guys.”
These bearded, rugged men and yes, women, used to climb the tower with oil lamps to guide sailors to shore with its light.
“These people were committed to manual labor of this climb of the tower before there was electricity, living out here in the elements when there was nothing else here,” Gaviola said. ”So what I do in overseeing the property really has no bearing compared to what they did. And the hardships that they lived through and saving lives.”
President George Washington commissioned this lighthouse and four years later construction was finished in 1796. It’s the oldest lighthouse in New York and fourth oldest in the country.
Over the last two centuries, the Atlantic Ocean has washed away 200 feet of the shore with less than 100 feet to go.
Today, the tower stands at 110 feet with the shoreline closing in. It’s a long way to the top, climbing winding, tight metal stairs. The original wooden steps have long since been replaced. The wind whisks through the windows and at the top, it’s deafening.
“We get very rough weather here. When the wind hits the Turtle Hill that we're on, it becomes exponential and maybe blowing 30 miles an hour in town and 70 miles an hour here,” Gaviola said.
Its outer walls are cracked and color weathered from rain, snow and winds. Moisture that seeped into the mortar has caused the brick to bulge and spall off.
“It gets pretty gnarly here. Very noisy,” he said. “[The wind] can actually sweep your legs out from under you and it's an acquired taste to get used to all the noises and creaks and squeaks of a building this old.”
The nonprofit Montauk Historical Society operates the lighthouse, where Gaviola has been a board member for over 20 years. He said coronavirus has only grown his enthusiasm for the lighthouse, as he has spent the last year doing his banking from home at a small desk in his quarters.
Gaviola jokes that he is the second inhabitant to "wait out an epidemic" there: Theodore Roosevelt, a fellow Long Islander, was quarantined with his troop of Rough Riders on the property during the Spanish-American War. They fended off yellow fever, typhoid and malaria.
The Montauk Historical Society purchased the landmark from the U.S. Coast Guard in 1989. It’s been up to them and generous donors to maintain the structure and historical integrity of the lighthouse.
The landmark attracts over 100,000 visitors every year — the pandemic last year was no help.
“So more money to raise for the tower," he said. "It never, never never stops us, you know, raising money here.”
In 2016, a feasibility study found that the tower’s entire exterior needed a $1.3 million restoration. This is not a state property, nor federal property. The lighthouse is maintained by private dollars and a state grant for $438,500.
It’s the largest project at the lighthouse since it was enlarged by 30 feet in the late 1800s.
“The two things that are maintained by the Coast Guard since it's still an active date, the navigation or the light thing come on the property at any time,” Gaviola said, referring to the lighthouse beacon, which can be seen for over 19 nautical miles and over 21 miles on land, “and also the fog signal, which is out front."
“They were pulling out of old lighthouses across the country and electrifying them. So they put the new lens, the old lenses and cranks to them, and they were giant and maintenance issues,” he continued.
The lighthouse was electrified in 1940 before the U.S. Army occupied the property during World War II to spot German U-boats off the coast. The original Fresnel lens — hundreds of pieces of cut glass designed around a lamp to intensify its glow — now sits in the lighthouse’s museum on the ground floor.
“The Coast Guard has turned us down every time we've asked to put this back up,” Gaviola said.
The goal is to finish the federal shore revampment and separate, private exterior renovation by 2022.