Renovation draws to a close on historic lighthouse

Extreme Makeover: Lighthouse Edition

The Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse is as charming as it is incongruous.

The six-sided Victorian cottage is painted white, with a pitched red roof, dormer windows and bright-green shutters. There it sits on giant stilts, 10 feet above water level, as if it had been plucked from its location on land by a giant hand and deposited in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.

As an 11-year, approximately $500,000 restoration project draws to a close, the 1875 lighthouse is more visually appealing than it's been at any time in recent memory.

"It's elegant, a classic," marveled Al Ponzio, 65, of Annapolis, who took part in a public tour of the lighthouse Sunday afternoon. "It never goes out of style."

Just as remarkably, the lighthouse is still in operation, guiding ships to safety in 2015 using roughly the same technology that it has used for the past 140 years: a beacon flashing in a tower that's high enough to be seen 11 miles away. For the past three decades, the lighthouse has been fully automated. The last human keepers left in 1986.

"The most fascinating thing to me is that this lighthouse still is standing," tour guide Mike Thorpe said. "The walls are the original tongue-and-groove construction — no nails. All the ironwork is original from 1875. After all this time, the structural integrity of the lighthouse still is good."

The Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse has withstood nearly a century and a half of storms, of ice, of everything that the Chesapeake Bay can throw at it. In 2003, during Tropical Storm Isabel, the bay waters rose so high that the lighthouse docks and deck were completely submerged.

But even during the worst of the storm, the lighthouse didn't budge. It remained anchored in place, held fast by iron pilings that — way back in 1875 — were drilled about 12 feet beneath the bay's muddy bottom.

Nonetheless, water doesn't mix well with wood and metal. Over time, the elements began to take a toll.

Some of the iron and steel parts above the water line had begun to corrode and were badly in need of a cleaning, according to Henry Gonzalez, vice president of U.S. Lighthouse Society and manager of the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse. In addition, almost a third of the wrap-around deck on the main level of the cottage and its supports had begun to rot and needed to be replaced. Lead paint, a safety hazard, had to be removed.

The lighthouse is one of just 12 nationwide designated as national historic landmarks. In keeping with that status, which was conferred in 1999, project organizers hoped to restore the interior to its historic conditions.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, waterways were the highways of the young nation, so protecting the ships that traversed them was key to safeguarding the country's economy. As the decades passed, the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse became a kind of visual symbol of Maryland itself, and is now one of the state's most beloved and frequently photographed structures.

Renovations began in 2004, after ownership and management of the lighthouse passed from the federal government to a consortium of public and private organizations: the city of Annapolis, Anne Arundel County, the Annapolis Maritime Museum and the U.S. Lighthouse Society.

Initial estimates put the length of the project at about five years. But the lighthouse has only two heated rooms: the front parlor and the kitchen. And the repairs were made almost entirely by volunteers who, Gonzalez said, realistically could work only from mid-May until early November when the weather was mild.

Finishing touches on the restoration are expected to be completed by Labor Day, he said.

Different parts of the lighthouse have been restored to the different eras that were historically significant. The front parlor is a monument to Victorian life, with a pot-bellied stove and a display case of period brass instruments. The kitchen is refurbished in the style it was in the early 20th century, with an oil lamp and an old-fashioned flatiron for clothing. And one of the bedrooms has been converted into a navigation room used when the Coast Guard manned the lighthouse in the late 1970s.

Tour members Burt "Ed" and Susan Chidakel of Gaithersburg lingered over clues in the cottage that conveyed what life was like for the keepers. The couple stood outside on the walkway and gazed across the water at the delicate outlines of the Bay Bridge — a tantalizing reminder for the keepers of life in motion.

The Chidakels perused the annual provisions list posted on a kitchen wall, which included 32 pounds of beef, 104 pounds of pork, 208 pounds of flour and 13 pounds of rice.

"Their menu seems like it was pretty limited," Susan Chidakel observed.

The keepers always were men — for much of the lighthouse's history, women and children weren't allowed to set foot on the premises — who served three-year rotations. The men would spend three weeks at a time inside the lighthouse, which is a mile and a half from shore, and then return to the mainland for a week's leave.

The only real leisure activities in the lighthouse were reading and fishing. Bob Stevenson, education coordinator for the Lighthouse Society's Chesapeake Chapter, said it wasn't unusual for tensions to run high between two men confined 24/7 to perhaps 800 square feet of space.

In 1903, the lighthouse's main keeper, Daniel A. White, went ashore to buy groceries. When he returned, the assistant keeper, Henry Addicks, had disappeared.

"No one ever found out what happened to the guy," Stevenson said. "Did he drown or commit suicide? Did he get a passing fisherman to take him away? To this day, no one knows."

And in 1905, keeper John B.T. Suit wrote the following letter of complaint about his assistant keeper:

"I am sorry to have to report that the assistant Mr. Peter S Earle is losing his mind and I can not trust him with the light."

Soon thereafter, Earle was replaced as assistant keeper, Stevenson said.

Though the keepers were isolated from virtually all human contact, they nonetheless were expected to maintain military standards of appearance at all times, Stevenson said. Keepers wore uniforms and ties that had to be impeccably clean and pressed. Inspectors would make spot checks and note every unpolished brass button, unfolded blanket and speck of grease.

"Preserving this lighthouse reminds us of how things have changed for the better," said tour participant Gary Greenip, 68, of Crofton. "People had to make sacrifices then that it's hard for us today to even imagine."

Though the historic documents contain many references to the problems of lighthouse living — in 1908, lightning struck the smokestack and nearly tore the kitchen in two, and later the same year, the assistant keeper lost $900 in provisions after he ran his boat into the rocks, tearing a hole in the hull — one thing is noticeably absent. There are almost no accounts of passing ships that had run aground and no reports of dramatic rescues of passing sailors.

"The fact that there aren't a lot of stories like that means that the lighthouse was doing its job," Gonzalez said. "The mariners saw the light, knew where the shoals were located, and were able to steer clear of the hazards and remain safe."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If You Go

Public lighthouse tours will be conducted on eight weekend days between July 18 and Oct. 10 from the dock behind the Annapolis Maritime Museum, 723 2nd St., Annapolis. $70. Capacity is limited and reservations are required. Call 415-362-7255 or go to thomaspointlighthouse.org.

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