Honoring brave sentinels. Drawn by mystery and romance, lighthouse lovers restore buildings, records

EVERY night, just as dusk begins its final fade to darkness on this small island, a red light atop a 48-ft. stone tower starts to flash a signal of warning that beams far out over the cold Atlantic Ocean. This lighthouse on Isle au Haut is one of more than 60 scattered along the rocky Maine coast, and one of more than 400 working lighthouses that stand as guardians all along the shores of the United States. What makes the Isle au Haut site unusual is what has happened to the lighthouse keeper's quarters that stand just a few hundred feet from the tower: The building has recently been turned into a bed-and-breakfast inn, the first of its kind on the East Coast.

The restoration and opening of The Keeper's Quarters, as the inn is known, is also the latest example of a growing, nationwide interest in the preservation of lighthouses and the documentation of their unique role in American maritime history.

``It's really a turning point in lighthouse history,'' says Valerie Nelson, co-director of the two-year-old Lighthouse Preservation Society, a nationwide nonprofit group based in Rockport, Mass. ``We're just now pursuing solutions for what will develop in the next several years about how to maintain the buildings and pay for their upkeep. We need to raise public awareness about that need.''

The interest in lighthouse preservation has intensified in recent years as the United States Coast Guard approaches the end of a project launched in 1968 to automate every lighthouse in the country.

The Lighthouse Automation Program (LAMP), which winds up in 1989, spells the end to more than two centuries of manned lighthouse operation. It has also caused many of the historic buildings, which were once home to lighthouse keepers and their families, to fall victim to vandalism and neglect, and in some cases razing by the United States Coast Guard.

But thanks to leasing and licensing agreements between private preservation groups or local historical societies and the Coast Guard (which still maintains the actual towers that the automated lights shine from), a growing number of lighthouse keepers' quarters are being restored and opened to the public as museums, biological research stations, youth hostels, and inns. At present, the Coast Guard has 70 leasing agreements with groups around the country.

``It's a growing trend,'' says Wayne Wheeler, a former Coast Guard officer who is now president of the United States Lighthouse Society, a preservation group based in San Francisco which has 2,300 members in 49 states and in several foreign countries.

``They're unique structures,'' he insists. ``People have an affinity toward these brave sentinels standing out there, buffeted by the wind and the waves. There's something mysterious about lighthouses, something romantic.

``We get letters from people all the time,'' continues Mr. Wheeler. ``There was a woman from Kansas who wrote us and said, `I've always loved lighthouses, ever since I was a little girl. I've never seen one. I've never been to the coast.' She wanted to join the society.''

The history of lighthouses and their keepers actually dates back more than 2,000 years, when towers were lighted with open fires. The first lighthouse ever built was finished around 280 BC and stood at the port of Alexandria, Egypt -- a 450-ft. behemoth that was one of the seven ancient wonders of the world.

The Romans built lighthouses in the Mediterranean and as far away as Britain. Christopher Columbus's uncle was a lighthouse keeper in Genoa, Italy. And long before the American colonies broke away from England, settlers built the first lighthouse on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor in 1716. Even the Statue of Liberty was used as a lighthouse for several years.

Although no one seems to know for sure (some national records on lighthouses were lost in a fire), it's estimated that there were once as many as 700 to 800 lighthouses along the US coasts and throughout the Great Lakes. In fact, it's the lack of historical knowledge that has in part motivated lighthouse lovers to band together.

``Back in 1979, my husband and I saw two lighthouses on Lake Michigan -- Little Sable Point Lighthouse and Big Sable Point Lighthouse,'' says Darla Van Hoey of Southfield, Mich. ``The big one had other buildings surrounding it, but the little one was just a tall tower sticking out of the sand.

``We went to the library,'' she says, ``and what little information we could find showed that Little Sable Point had once had all kinds of buildings around it. We thought: Isn't it pathetic that those buildings are gone now, and isn't it pathetic that there's no information about them?''

Today, Mrs. Van Hoey and her husband are both officers in the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association, which was founded in part to gather information on lighthouses and their keepers ``so that life at these stations can be accurately interpreted and preserved.''

``I have two children, they're two and five,'' Mrs. Van Hoey says. ``To me the history and preservation of lighthouses is important so that future generations will be able to view these structures and learn about the lives that were led there.''

Preserving a lighthouse isn't cheap. Depending on the state of the building -- and how ambitious restoration plans are -- the price tag can run anywhere from several thousand dollars to something like the $1.5 million project at the Fire Island Lighthouse on Long Island, N.Y.

To meet their funding goals, local preservation groups have raised money through everything from bake sales to direct-mail solicitations. State and local agencies, as well as foundations and corporations like American Express, have also contributed and, in the case of Fire Island, an anonymous donor has offered two $50,000 matching grants.

Although most lighthouse properties in the US are owned by the federal government, a few dozen lighthouses are in private hands -- most of them bought from the government during the 1930s when some lighthouses were sold as surplus property.

The keeper's quarters on the secluded island of Isle au Haut (eight miles off the Maine shore) was one of the properties sold by the government. When the owner decided to sell recently, he had more than 100 interested buyers. The property finally sold for $190,000 to Jeff and Judi Burke, who have invested over $100,000 to renovate the simple house as a four-room inn.

``I saw it for the first time in August 1985,'' Mr. Burke says. ``And I immediately saw that this place was the most wonderful possibility for an inn anywhere . . .''

Some preservationists raise questions about commercial uses of lighthouse properties -- arguing that without regulations to safeguard the buildings, private owners may alter their historic value. But the Burkes' project has won at least grudging acceptance from some purists. The Keeper's Quarters inn has been restored with a respect for the way the keeper and his family once lived; there are no electric lights and no telephones.

``The legacy of the lighthouse has a lot to do with the keepers themselves, their families, and the adventures that happened,'' Mr. Burke says. ``The lighthouse is symbolic of a whole era of American history . . . The fact that they're threatened to some degree now strikes a chord in most people's hearts.''

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