Ever romanticize about buying an old lighthouse, fixing it up, and creating your ideal family summer getaway or maybe opening a bed and breakfast? Sources say there are approximately one thousand lighthouses in the U.S., and the government periodically puts these beacons of history up for sale—often at auctions and for a relative song. But once in your possession, remodeling these national treasures takes a lot more than a gallon of paint. In fact for one new owner, it took 70.
First, tackling the restoration or renovation of a century-old (many older) rusting, decaying, sometimes listing or structurally dangerous icon (some are literally falling into the sea), and adding in stringent 21st century code and, in some cases, historic preservation requirements, is not for the faint of heart – or spirit. In short, transforming an historic navigational aid into a modern vacation home isn’t for the typical weekend warrior – unless one has free weekends for the next five years – nor does it come with an instruction manual. But it definitely has its merits. Those who own them are proud curators of a bygone era.
Lighthouse historian Jeremy D’Entremont, who has chronicled lighthouse life and lore for nearly 30 years, confirms that ownership can be daunting, time-consuming and definitely costly, especially in the beginning. In fact some new owners who appear to be getting a bargain invest as much as five times what they paid for a property in its metamorphosis. While not compelled to own one himself, D’Entremont, who’s penned many dozens of lighthouse articles and books, maintains that stewardship of these fading anthems is an important component of possession. “And among the many challenges are plumbing, electrical (many rely on generators) and accessibility issues, where age and weather may have rendered docks (for access) unusable,” he said. Consequently ferrying work crews and materials back and forth to the site may prove painstaking and exhausting at best, especially for those lights that are miles out in the open ocean.
What’s more, many lighthouses are still considered active aids to navigation, or ATONs, which means a private owner must work with the Coast Guard to facilitate their continued use as such.
Preserve and Protect
Because these briny beacons bear testimony to another epoch, in an effort to perpetuate as much of their legacy as possible the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act (NHLPA), enacted in 2000, has made many of these maritime monuments available. To acquire them, qualified federal agencies, state and local governments, nonprofit organizations (these at no cost), and the public, at a cost, can bid through the General Services Administration’s (the federal government’s real estate arm) online auction site. According to GSA branch Chief Barbara Salfity, there are two phases when a lighthouse or related maritime property is offered, the first being to nonprofits, local government and other historical and educational entities. If no sale transpires, the GSA moves on to a public sale phase. In fact, to date 32 lighthouses have passed into private ownership this way.
A Lighthouse Runs Through It
For Nick Korstad, learning to handle a boat (an inflatable kayak was used to ferry paint, etc. at first) was among the early steps in lighthouse ownership. An Oregon transplant to tiny Fall River, Massachusetts, Korstad jettisoned his food and beverage management job to relocate to the site of the tower-on-caisson spark plug style 1881 Borden Flats Lighthouse he purchased in 2011.
Passionate about lighthouses since he was 7 or 8 years old, he admits dragging his parents and brother around the country as a child to view them. “I must have been a lighthouse keeper in a past life,” Korstad quips, admitting he and his family, who have come out to help him renovate from time to time, have also had their share of paranormal experiences at Borden Flats. In fact last year Korstad opened his lighthouse to overnight guests who, in addition to the novelty of a night in a seaworthy cylinder, may be privy to “little girl giggles” (Korstad said she actually spoke to them in the beginning, approving the family’s color palette) and someone whistling. “A woman also hums,” Korstad says.
Vacant since 1963, Korstad obtained his property through a GSA auction and admits “the government doesn’t sell anything that’s turnkey.” Maintained primarily by a few exterior paint jobs over 50 years, Korstad says the damage and amount of work involved inside and out has been immeasurable. “The first time we painted it, we used 70 gallons of paint,” he says of the structure. Former owner of a Virginia lighthouse, Korstad says he’d been approved for an improvement loan but in the end no bank will lend on a lighthouse because it is not considered real estate. Selling the Virginia property, he made a small profit which went into an account for a future lighthouse endeavor which turned out to be Borden Flats.
“The first one was too far out at sea anyway,” Korstad recalls, something that became apparent in his quest to educate himself on lighthouse proprietorship. For Borden Flats, while admitting he continues to funnel money into renovation, Korstad prudently acquired all the furnishings from consignment stores. Family heirlooms including plates and artwork adorn the space, and Korstad himself is a fine art photographer with a collection of lighthouses he has photographed on the walls.
“The light is still active and the Coast Guard has the keys,” Korstad says.