Coronavirus forced organizers to pull the plug on the annual holiday lighting of the Montauk Lighthouse last fall, but the iconic landmark will shine brighter than ever once a pair of renovations are completed.
Just as a $1.1 million renovation to repair the 225-year-old lighthouse is halfway completed, a long-stalled $30.7 million project to buttress the Montauk Point shorefront below the beacon is expected to soon get underway.
“We anticipate getting shovels into the ground as soon as possible to start the work to preserve and protect this National Treasure,” said Frank Verga, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ New York District.
The 110-foot-tall lighthouse commissioned by George Washington — the first in New York State and fourth nationwide — was 300 feet from the shore when it was built in 1796. After two centuries of erosion, the octagonal sandstone tower is now less than 100 feet from the edge of the Turtle Hill bluff the National Historic Landmark calls home.
Although advances in nautical navigation made lighthouses largely obsolete since the 19th century, the structures remain a beacon of nostalgia for tourists. Drawing about 100,000 visitors annually, the Montauk Lighthouse is one of top tourist attractions on Long Island, helping fuel the economy in the community at the easternmost tip of the South Fork that some locals jokingly refer to as a “quaint drinking village with a fishing problem.”
THE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER
The partially finished project to refurbish the Montauk Lighthouse is expected to give the structure a new lease on life.
The Lighthouse Committee of the Montauk Historical Society raised the funds for the project, which is being done in three phases and received a state grant for nearly half of the work. Phase one repaired intricate iron details in the lantern that sits atop the lighthouse, ongoing phase two involves fixing cracks, and phase three will entail repainting the entire structure in 2022 — white with a brown stripe.
“This is exciting news for not only the East End of Long Island, but for all of Long Island,” said Nick Racanelli, who spearheaded the ongoing fundraising efforts for the renovations. He noted that the last major renovations to the structure were completed in the late 1800s.
Before the pandemic forced fundraising efforts online, organizers backing the lighthouse’s facelift hosted live events on the grounds to bankroll the project. Some big Hamptons names have gotten behind the drive, like when 16-time Grammy Award winner and Montauk resident Paul Simon, who gave a surprise performance at the 2018 Montauk Music Festival, with proceeds benefiting the work.
Besides the lighthouse, the complex consists of the keeper’s house, the fire control tower, and the garage, which served as an earlier keeper’s house. Archaeological sites associated with the lighthouse and bluff are also part of the complex.
While the renovations to the lighthouse itself are encouraging for those hoping to see the historic structure remain standing for future generations, the work to sure up the shorefront is also critical.
The deteriorating stonework revetment is the only thing left protecting the lighthouse from being lost to the ocean due to erosion. Repairs consist of removing and reusing existing five- and 10-ton armor stones, placing new 10- and 15-ton armor stones, and providing slope stabilization with terracing and vegetation above the upper crest of the approximately 1,000 linear feet stone revetment. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded the contract to Bay Shore-based H&L Contracting. Construction is expected to take approximately two years.
“We look forward to making sure this important part of American History remains a symbol of our strength and American military engineering excellence for the next 100 years,” said Col. Matthew Luzzatto, commander of the Army Corps’ New York District.
Besides mitigating erosion, the project will also improve public access to the oceanfront.
“The new revetment … will include access areas that will allow visitors to walk safely along the seaward side of the lighthouse.” said State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos.
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo originally announced in 2018 that state and federal funding for the project was approved, the cost of the work was estimated at $24 million and it was initially slated to begin that year. This year, DEC allocated $15 million for the project, nearly double what it had initially earmarked for the work.
“Cost changes from 2018 were due to further advancement, refinement and finalization of the project’s construction design package, and ultimately, the cost of the acceptable winning bid,” said James D’Ambrosio, a spokesman for the Army Corps. “We did not execute the required project partnership agreement with New York State … until early 2019. This is required before project construction can begin.
“Also, our original contract advertisement did not result in any acceptable bids,” he continued. “As a result, we had to cancel, re-package and re-advertise the bid to reach the current award, a complex process that takes time.”
THIS IS THE END
The significance of the lighthouse stretches beyond just Montauk or the 19 nautical miles at which its beacon reaches out at sea.
It’s become such a symbol of Long Island that a silhouette of the lighthouse adorns road signs identifying local parkways across the region. It regularly appears in advertisements for tourism and business. It’s easily one of the most photographed landmarks island-wide.
And to think, the U.S. Coast Guard wanted to demolish the structure in the 1960s, sparking protests to save it. In 1996, the U.S. Coast Guard transferred ownership of the historic site to the Montauk Historical Society, which now operates and owns the property.
“The Montauk Historical Society is honored to be a part of the civilian/government alliance that has been protecting the Montauk Lighthouse since 1970,” said Greg Donohue, a member of the Montauk Historical Society board of directors. “We acknowledge the importance of this project for both preserving the history of our National Historic Landmark, as well as promoting recreation at Montauk State Park for generations to come.”
10 MONTAUK LIGHTHOUSE FACTS
- Oldest lighthouse in New York State
- Fourth-oldest currently operated lighthouse in America
- Stands 110 feet and six inches tall
- There are 137 steps to the top
- The light flashes every 5 seconds
- The light can be seen from 19 nautical miles
- The walls are 6 feet thick at the base and 3 feet thick at the top
- Congress approved funding to build the lighthouse in 1792
- Construction began on June 7, 1796 and was completed on Nov. 5, 1796
- Southold lawmaker Ezra L’Hommedieu chose the site and designed the structure