BLOCK ISLAND, R.I. -- Only once did Jerry Matyiko question whether he could move the majestic Southeast Lighthouse here on Block Island. He climbed a 60-foot tower and gazed down upon the massive brick structure.
"Those beams looked awful small under that big building," recalls Mr. Matyiko, a 46-year-old house mover from Maryland. "But then I remembered something an old house mover once told me: No matter how large the building, don't let it overwhelm you."
But a lighthouse? Nobody had ever moved a lighthouse this large before, especially a 118-year-old, five-story lighthouse with attached keeper's dwelling weighing 2,000 tons and perched perilously close to an eroding cliff.
Mr. Matyiko assembled a team of experts that devised a plan involving steel beams, rollers and hydraulic jacks for lifting the fragile brick structure in one piece, and then nudging it along steel tracks waxed with, of all things, Ivory soap.
In the past two weeks, as house movers and tourists from across the country ferried in to watch, he and his team have moved the historic lighthouse -- the highest in New England and brightest on the Atlantic coast -- 245 feet back from the cliff. Today they plan on lowering it onto its new foundation, where it will be preserved for another 100 years.
"This isn't the biggest building that's ever been moved," Mr. Matyiko says, "but it's probably the most photographed and publicized."
Mr. Matyiko, fit and bouncy with a handsome round face, founded Expert House Movers in Sharptown in Wicomico County in 1973. He had moved to the Eastern Shore from Virginia Beach, Va., where his 280-pound father, Big John the House Mover, a gregarious Hungarian, had become something of a house-moving legend -- before dying in a car wreck at 48.
That left Big John's four sons -- Johnny, Joe, Jimmy and Jerry -- to carry on the legacy, which they did until Jerry, the youngest, broke free and resettled in Maryland. They still work together occasionally, as they did moving the lighthouse.
"This is the job we've been looking for," Jerry Matyiko says. "This puts us in a class that's, no question, top of the line."
To make sure nobody misses the point, Mr. Matyiko had EXPERT HOUSE MOVERS painted in 26-inch bold red letters on long steel beams at the base of each side of the lighthouse and keeper's residence.
"The reason I put my name on it so big is because of all these people with cameras," Mr. Matyiko says, glancing over his shoulder at a dusty path crowded with onlookers. "The pictures will be around longer than I am. . . . My kids will always be able to say: 'Hey, my dad moved that lighthouse.' "
Americans love their lighthouses, and the Southeast Lighthouse ranks among the best-loved. Its unusual Gothic Revival-style -- a gingerbread cottage with a light tower attached -- and its station at the edge of a gnarled cliff make it one of the most photographed.
"I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who said the lighthouse is the most altruistic of all buildings," says James Hyland, founder and president of the Lighthouse Preservation Society in Rockport, Mass. "It's designed to help people. That's its sole purpose, saving lives."
"It's like mom and apple pie," says Mr. Hyland. "Who can say anything bad about a lighthouse?"
But talk is cheap, whereas maintaining a lighthouse isn't.
It's just as efficient and much cheaper for the Coast Guard, which oversees the nearly 500 working lights in the country, to stick a beacon atop a tower -- but not nearly as pleasing to the eye or the heart.
Shaped like a pork chop, Block Island is a summer resort about midway between Rhode Island and Long Island. You can fly in or cruise over on your boat, but most people catch the ferry from Point Judith, R.I.
About 800 people live here year-round. As many as 8,000 or 9,000 squeeze in at any one time during the summer, some for the day, some for the season. This is one of those places where people use "cottage" as a verb, as in: "I've cottaged on the island 15 years."
Jean Napier has cottaged on the island 65 years, all her life. Her great-grandfather was the first keeper of the Southeast Lighthouse, her great-uncle the second and her grandfather the third. Their residence at the keeper's house spanned 1875 to 1930.
"Growing up it was always referred to as grandpa's light," Mrs. Napier says. "It wasn't until my son was 5 years old that we broke the news to him that the Coast Guard owned it, and we didn't."
She says the revolving light, encased in a green housing, threw a comforting green beam not only out to sea but also back on land. The islanders called it their night light.
"It was there, just like the sea is there, just like the sky is there, just like the land is there," Mrs. Napier says. "You just accepted it."
But about 10 years ago, she says, residents began waking up to the sobering fact that it wouldn't be there forever. Erosion was eating at the shoreline. When it was lighted in 1875, the lighthouse stood about 300 feet from cliff's edge. By this summer it was a mere 55 feet away, dangerously close to tumbling onto the rocks from which it had diverted mariners for more than a century.
Mrs. Napier was among the handful of islanders who launched the attack to save the lighthouse. It took three acts of Congress, countless meetings, mailings, lobbying, phone calls and unabashed begging.
But finally, the Coast Guard turned over the lighthouse to the Southeast Lighthouse Foundation and, more important, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state of Rhode Island and the local foundation came up with $2.3 million to move the lighthouse.
That victory, however, came at the expense of a crunching defeat. In 1990, the Coast Guard, to save money, turned off the great light -- a rare first-order Fresnel lens handcrafted in France -- and replaced it with an undistinguished light atop an unsightly steel tower.
"The night before they turned off the light," Mrs. Napier says, "people sat out on the hillside to watch it. My daughter climbed the old iron staircase up the tower, and she said people had placed flowers around the lens."
A creative proposal
Mr. Matyiko wanted the high-profile job of moving the lighthouse. His team included his brothers, International Chimney Corp. of Buffalo, N.Y. -- which specializes in smokestacks and recently renovated the Cape Hatteras (N.C.) Lighthouse -- and 73-year-old Peter Friesen, a consultant from Washington state. Mr. Matyiko calls him "the most respected person in the house-moving business, period."
Although they weren't the lowest bidder, he says, they were awarded the contract because they had offered the most creative proposal. Other companies wanted to remove the granite foundation, or even slice the building in half. But the house mover from Maryland insisted the lighthouse could be moved in one piece.
He was right.
After workers braced the building and secured the priceless lens, they dug around the 48-by-78-foot structure down to the basement floor. International Chimney workers cut holes for beams through the basement's thick walls with diamond-tipped drills, cables and saws.
Expert House Movers implanted 34 steel beams, ranging in length from 54 feet to 90 feet, under and around the structure and through the windows of the light tower. The four main beams underneath contained 38 hydraulic jacks spaced precisely 8 feet, 1 inch apart.
Workers dug out the basement wall and pesky boulders below the light tower. Now the structure rested on the intricate network of beams.
Then the hydraulic jacks slowly raised the building 2 feet, 8 inches. An elaborate system of tracks and rollers was installed underneath.
The move took place in three legs: 130 feet north, 130 feet east, 90 feet north. Four large hydraulic jacks bolted to the main beams pushed the building along the tracks at a snail's pace, about 5 feet at a time.
Then the jacks were reset, and they pushed five more feet. After each leg, the tracks and rollers were relaid, and the process repeated.
The relocation itself took only two weeks, but Mr. Matyiko began moving equipment onto the island by barge and ferry in May. He rented a house overlooking the water for his workers, an unglamorous six-bedroom place that, like nearly everything on the island, came with an exorbitant price tag. The rent for the summer? A cool $12,000.
"But how can you knock this ocean view?" Mr. Matyiko says as if he were a Realtor. "We've got blues breaking right out front of the house, and deer and pheasant in the back yard. It's not exactly Sharptown, is it?"
As the lighthouse inched closer and closer to its destination, an 18-inch-thick slab of concrete, Mr. Matyiko and the others grew more and more anxious to finish and get home. But there was still time for celebration, especially when the cameraman for National Geographic Explorer, filming a documentary, moved in for closeups.
The pushing stopped Monday. The lighthouse was over the slab.
Jimmy Matyiko, 47, the second youngest, says saving the lighthouse prompted him to think about more than mortar and bricks.
"I keep thinking about my ancestors coming over from the Old Country," he says. "What was the first thing they probably saw from way out in the ocean? The light from a lighthouse. It probably guided their ship right toward the Statue of Liberty."
The brothers' grandparents on both sides came by boat from Hungary. Their mother and father met in this country. Their mother is still living. They salute their father, Big John the House Mover.
"Some days I really think he's up there looking out for us," Jimmy says.
Yesterday the workers shifted the lighthouse and keeper's dwelling about 2 feet so it would fit snugly onto the pad. Today they plan on lowering it, completing the move.
Then Jerry Matyiko and the Expert crew will leave for home. International Chimney workers will remain on the island and begin building new basement walls.
Mr. Matyiko will return about the first of October, and his crew will remove the beams and pack up. Workers will patch up the holes with brick, and the building will stand on its own again.
Residents of Block Island hope to relight and renovate the lighthouse in the next year or two.
The Southeast Lighthouse was not the only old jewel threatened by neglect and erosion. The tallest and best-known lighthouse in the country, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on the sandy Outer Banks of North Carolina, is also endangered. Recently renovated, it may be the next lighthouse to be moved.
Mr. Matyiko's eyeballs nearly pop out of his head at the mention of it. He says that would be the job of the century.
But for now, Mr. Matyiko basks on Block Island. He's been interviewed and photographed and even signed an autograph. It's been a rare moment in the spotlight for a house mover from the Eastern Shore.