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Owning a piece of maritime history

US puts obsolete lighthouses up for public auction

The Kenosha North Pierhead Lighthouse on Lake Michigan in Wisconsin was among dozens of lighthouses the United States put up for sale after the Coast Guard decommissioned them. The Kenosha North Pierhead Lighthouse on Lake Michigan in Wisconsin was among dozens of lighthouses the United States put up for sale after the Coast Guard decommissioned them. (General Services Administration)
By Steve Vogel
Washington Post / July 17, 2011

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WASHINGTON - For sale: historic waterfront property with a spectacular, 50-foot-high view of Lake Michigan. Featuring solid, century-old cast-iron construction, painted distinctive red. Comes with its own Fresnel lens for signaling ships.

If that sounds attractive, too late: The Kenosha North Pierhead Lighthouse in Wisconsin has already been auctioned by the General Services Administration. But there’s still the Conneaut Harbor West Breakwater Light in Ohio, which is open for bidding until Wednesday.

“There are a number of people who like to say, ‘Hey, I own a lighthouse.’ It’s good cocktail-party conversation,’’ said John Smith, the deputy assistant commissioner for real property utilization and disposal for the GSA’s Public Building Service.

GSA is also offering 12 historic lighthouses free, though takers must be eligible state or local entities, nonprofit corporations, historic-preservation groups, or community development organizations.

“The US General Services Administration is looking for a few good stewards to preserve a key slice of the nation’s maritime history,’’ the agency said in a news release.

The lighthouses are being made available as part of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. The federal government owns about 250 lighthouses, which are maintained by the Coast Guard. Once critical for navigation along the nation’s coastal and inland waterways, many have been made obsolete by the advance of radio, radar, and satellite navigation.

Under the terms of the legislation, if the Coast Guard decommissions a lighthouse, the government tries to find a caretaker agency or buyer rather than see the structures demolished or fall apart from neglect.

“They’re in varying states of repair or disrepair,’’ Smith said. “They’re not cheap to maintain.’’

Over the past half-dozen years, 54 lighthouses have been transferred from the federal government, including six to public agencies, 16 to local governments, three to states, and 29 to nonprofits, according to Smith.

Twenty-two others have been sold to the public, at prices ranging from $10,000 to $260,000. The first choice is to find a qualified entity to take over a lighthouse. Interested parties are subjected to “a rigorous application process,’’ according to the GSA, including a review of whether they are able financially able to maintain a lighthouse.

The entities have responsibility for upkeep and must make the station available for education, park, recreation, cultural, or historic-preservation purposes to the general public. If no takers can be found, the lighthouses are put up for public auction. “If they’re sold, a lot of the restrictions come off,’’ Smith said.

Buyers have included doctors, military officers, couples looking for a weekend getaway, and others who want to open a bed and breakfast, according to Smith.

The GSA has a network of potential buyers, including people who have registered online and receive e-mail updates when lighthouses go on sale. Others are reached through ads in newspapers or publications appealing to lighthouse aficionados.

The GSA website includes a countdown clock marking the time until the close of bidding. “Usually we see the bidding pick up’’ in the final days and hours before deadline, Smith said.

“Once we close, there are a number of steps to make sure [the bidders] understand what they’re in for.’’

The 12 lighthouses being offered for free are the Ile Aux Galetts Light, Port Austin Reef Light, and Alpena Light in Michigan; the Brandywine Shoal, Ship John Shoal, and Miah Maull Shoal in New Jersey; Race Rock and Orient Point in New York; the Point Tuna Light - also known as Punta Tuna - in Puerto Rico; the Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse in Wisconsin; the Fowey Rocks Light in Florida; and San Pedro’s Point Fermin Light in California.

“GSA is committed to ensuring that these national beacons of light and life are transferred to new stewards dedicated to preserving their historic significance,’’ said David Foley, deputy commissioner of the Public Building Service.

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