Through a lens brightly

How to move a lighthouse beacon.

Details of the Fresnel lens at the Martha's Vineyard Museum in Edgartown. - Stacey Rupolo

The world’s most powerful lighthouse beacons radiate light more than 20 miles out to sea, the beam emanating from “first order” Fresnel lenses. Reportedly only 39 of the early 19th century beauties remain; nine are still in use in the U.S., according to the U.S. Lighthouse Society.

One of those 39 sits quietly, unlit, on the front lawn of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Edgartown. The term “first order” describes the magnitude of light power a lens generates. With the development of global positioning systems (GPS) and other navigational aids, most lenses in use today don’t have to be seen from as far and are lower-powered, in the second to sixth orders.

Phil Wallis stands in the doorway of the museum's Fresnel Lens Building in Edgartown. - MV Times
Phil Wallis stands in the doorway of the museum’s Fresnel Lens Building in Edgartown.
– MV Times

Over the next three years, the lens, lantern, and the assorted gears and pulleys of the 162-year-old artifact will be moved — very, very carefully — to a place of honor at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s new home atop the hill at the former Marine Hospital property in Vineyard Haven.

The move requires care because the beacon apparatus has more than 1,000 delicate glass parts, and perhaps as many as 2,000 parts in all, and also because this example of early 19th century lighting technology once stood atop Gay Head Light in Aquinnah after the lighthouse was constructed in 1855-56.

The lens became Martha’s Vineyard Museum property in 1952 when the Gay Head Light was replaced.

“We really don’t know how many parts are in the light. We know there are 1,008 separate prisms that comprise the Fresnel (pronounced “freh-NEL”) lens, but we won’t know exactly until it is disassembled, ” museum curator Bonnie Stacy told the Times last week as she and a reporter peered at the inner workings of the 19-foot monolith.

Gay Head Light, circa 1890, showing the Fresnel in its original location. -Martha's Vineyard Museum
Gay Head Light, circa 1890, showing the Fresnel in its original location.
-Martha’s Vineyard Museum

Ms. Stacy and the Martha’s Vineyard Museum have a $109,040 grant from the Museums for America program at the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which the museum will match in order to fund restoration and relocation of the lens.

Now, Craigslist doesn’t offer anyone whose work involves disassembling a thousand delicate glass prisms, repairing and servicing them and packing them for transport, then moving on to the 160-year-old brass and metal moving parts for the “clockwork” or rotation machinery and dealing with the assorted gears, pulleys, chains, and weights used to support, turn, and time the flashes of the beacon.

James Woodward, from Green Valley, Ariz., south of Tucson, does this work. A “lampist” who spent 30 years gussying up U.S. Coast Guard lighthouses before beginning his business, Mr. Woodward does not have to advertise. Mr Woodward’s Lighthouse Consultant LLC has worked on famous lighthouses across the country and in Bermuda, from Point Reyes in California to Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. Potential clients know that he is the Babe Ruth of his business, and he has been retained by the museum for the job.

The work is incredibly detailed. For example, “part of the prep work involves using bond-breaking solvents on fasteners to make them ready for disassembly,” Ms. Stacy recounted, conjuring up images of art restorers working on damaged masters’ works in Venice.

“No, this is not like assembling Ikea furniture,” Ms. Stacy laughed. “Jim did an analysis of the light 15 or so years ago for the museum, and has visited recently, so he has a good idea of our project.

The lens in its current home. - Stacey Rupolo
The lens in its current home.
-Katy Fuller

The Times was unable to reach Mr. Woodward in time for this article, but we had a look at an excerpt from his report, courtesy of the museum, that says in part, “Preparatory work will include removal and treatment of fasteners. The removal of the lens will take place over seven days, and stabilization of panels will be performed at a safe site … metal components will be disassembled and elements that need to be reproduced will be sent to a machinist …. the ferrous parts of the pedestal will be removed, cleaned, and repainted … in accordance with best conservation practices.” Subcontractors for that work will be chosen by objects curators and Mr. Woodward.

Meticulous? You bet. For example, “on his site visit, Jim was able to find a small hidden surface on which the original [1860s] green color remained, and he’ll replicate it,” Ms. Stacy said.

According to his report, “after all conservation work is completed, Woodward and his crew will reinstall the lens in the Fresnel Pavilion of the new Martha’s Vineyard Museum,” probably sometime in 2019. The work will be complete in two phases: the “make-ready,” if you will, completed by 2018, and the installation during the following year, after the light is reassembled at the new museum.

The lens and appurtenances will be one of the final objects installed in the new museum. “The timing is dependent on the building being almost finished. We won’t know that for awhile. We don’t want to install while construction is still going on, and we need to understand details of the physical environment — such as air, humidity levels — in which it will be housed. [Jim] has met with the architects about making sure the environment is appropriate,” Ms. Stacy said.

Before Frenchman Augustin Fresnel (1788-1827) got busy shortly after the turn of the 19th century, the environment for seafarers was often decidedly inappropriate for survival. M. Fresnel was “the man” for French lighthouses at the time, and he had had enough of the carnage and lost cargo occasioned by the cheesy light provided by lighthouses, some of which were basically fiery pyres. He would have also been aware that pirates and land-based scalawags routinely set up fake lighthouses to lure ships to run aground and provide easy pickin’s for them.

What he figured out was that if he bent hundreds of panes of glass at just the right angle, one row after another in a beehive shape, the refracted and diffused light would be strong and focused enough to be visible for more than 20 miles. It worked, so in 1855, the U.S. ordered one for its new Gay Head Lighthouse. It took 40 yoke of oxen to move the new light and appurtenances up-Island, according to a retrospective published by the Vineyard Gazette in 1970.

So there’s a lot of history here, and that’s not lost on Ms. Stacy. “It’s a compelling project; the light is so important and beautiful, you almost feel like you don’t have to tell its story, it’s so obviously historically significant, and not just on the Island. Very few first orders remain.

“The project is much more complicated than I’ve ever done — it’s large, heavy and delicate, a combination of everything, every element,” the 20-year museum curator said.

“Part of my job is to make sure objects are well taken care of. This is a particular challenge. In the past, curators have tried to do right by this object, including installing venting fans. But because of where it physically stands, we weren’t always able to do the right thing. When it was active, the lighthouse keeper was polishing the lens every day and maintaining it every day. We’re not in a position to do that. In that regard, [the project is] a bigger challenge than what I’ve worked with before.

“We’re a museum, and the light is not an aid of navigation now; it requires maintenance different from before. We need to treat it as the museum piece that it is, and without a lighthouse keeper’s daily maintenance, we have to make sure long-term conditions will provide that care,” she said.

With that in mind, once the close work of disassembly, repair, packing, and storage is complete, Mr. Woodward and his crew (probably four restorers) and Ms. Stacy will review its new home for ambient environment, support for the light, and a view.

“What the building needs to do is to support the weight of the beacon inside, and provide a space for an exhibit gallery and a view of the light from the outside,” she said.

  1. Fresnel was a pretty picky guy, but — mon dieu! — he’d be pleased with this effort.