Recently relocated Gay Head Lighthouse is in rough shape

A recent report detailed $1.3 million in badly needed repairs and restoration work.

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The Gay Head LIghthouse has provided a beacon for mariners for centuries. -Nelson Sigelman

Aquinnah’s Lighthouse Advisory Board (LAB) is pondering strategies to plan and fund a multiyear $1.3 million renovation of the recently relocated 162-year-old Gay Head Lighthouse.

The committee will meet on Oct. 8 at 4:30 pm at Aquinnah town hall to begin planning a repair schedule, based on a 10-page report by International Chimney Corp. (ICC) submitted to Aquinnah selectmen on Sept. 13. The report includes additional pages containing detailed photos of interior and exterior sections of the lighthouse in need of repair.

The internationally known Williamsville, N.Y., firm handled the 129-foot journey of the lighthouse away from the eroding Aquinnah cliff to safer ground in June 2015, an event which attracted national media attention and cost $3.5 million.

The ICC report recommends a two-phase project. Phase one, a 20-point plan, “will primarily deal with structural and safety restoration requirements,” with a secondary priority “to recommend imminently needed maintenance as to avert future costly repairs,” the report, signed by Joseph J. Jakubik, ICC historical preservation division manager, said.

The estimate for phase one is between $410,000 and $450,000.

ICC also recommends a 10-point phase two plan that includes removal and replacement work of sizable brick and metal elements of the lighthouse, and replicating the original materials “with historically appropriate mortar, brickwork, and tooling.” That cost is estimated at between $800,000 and $890,000.

In the introduction to the report, Mr. Jakubik said, “While there can be some give and take on setting priorities for funding purposes, two items stand out as extraordinary: dealing with the brickwork between the Lantern and the Gallery Deck, and correcting a safety issue affecting visitation, namely the lack of stanchions at the landings that would protect children from falling.”

Mr. Jakubik said the company looked “at problematic areas and potential solutions in the following manner: Is it a structural concern? Is it a safety concern? Is it a condition contributing to the deterioration of the historic fabric?”

Len Butler, chairman of the Lighthouse Advisory Board, and the town’s point man during the big move, said the board and ICC were talking while the report was being developed, which enabled the town to begin taking action. He said outside railings on the deck level were replaced, just under the light itself, at a cost of $68,000, and the board is planning to fill in gaps in the staircase which ICC identified as potentially dangerous for children.

“The lighthouse tour season ends on Columbus Day weekend, and we will be able to address the interior staircase balusters then,” he said, noting that “we’ve had no incidents in more than 20 years of tours.”

The lighthouse tours attract between 10,000 and 15,000 visitors a year, he estimated.

Town funds and donations currently available for the repair work total about $100,000, far less than the planners envisioned in 2014 when the board estimated the cost of relocation and the makeover effort, Mr. Butler said. Unforeseen costs in the lighthouse relocation move “gobbled up about $500,000” of the amount initially raised for relocation and renovation.

“In 2014, we had raised about $3.4 million in grants and donations, and ended up spending about $3.3 million all in,” Mr. Butler said. “We had some curveballs we weren’t expecting, and spent about $500,000 in landscaping, lead mitigation, and invasive-plant issues that left us short.”

In conjunction with the move, selectmen retained ICC to inspect the structure and to recommend fixes to the historic lighthouse, constructed in 1855 for $30,000 in federal funds, using bricks from the long-defunct Chilmark brickyard.

Mr. Butler said the town has asked ICC to prioritize the work outlined in phase one, in terms of importance, in order to slow down deterioration. “The building is very sound, but like all homes, if you let them go, repairs cost more down the road,” he said. “We’ve been doing patchwork repairs, Band-Aids really, over the past 10 years.”

Mr. Butler said the advisory board has been looking at the report carefully with an eye to applying for public and private grants. The key, he said, is to have specific goals. “There are federal and state grants and National Park Service grants, as well as lighthouse foundations we can approach,” he said.

The taxpayers would be the last resort. The national media attention garnered from the 2015 lighthouse move has raised national awareness, and could be a boon to the fundraising effort.

“Visitors tell us they became aware of the lighthouse because of national coverage, particularly from the PBS special that ‘Nova’ did on the move,” he said. “Nova” recently won a Science and Media Award sponsored by National Geographic Partners for its film “Operation Lighthouse Rescue.”

Careful process

ICC carefully details phase one repairs needed for exterior and interior brickwork on the 52-foot-high circular column lighthouse. Many of the 20-point recommended repairs deal with flaws in brickwork, such as loose or missing mortar around an estimated 40 percent of the circumference of the ground course on the east and west sides of the circular tower. Much of the remaining phase one work deals with rusted and corroded metalwork inside and outside the lighthouse.

For example, ICC laid out a 10-part project to to remove and replace the brick wall veneer addition between the Watch level and the Lantern level with a process that will combine therapy with a hint of archeology.

“Extreme caution must be exercised while removing brickwork,” ICC said. “We believe that the Lantern load is now balanced between the existing (old) column and the veneer.”

ICC’s painstaking plan is to “remove a little more than one-eighth of the circumference of the veneer at a time. The first section removed shall be a probe to determine how the remainder of the work shall be handled.”

Window work will include careful observation: “Dismantle the two bays having broken windows in the Lantern. Be prepared to dismantle the curtain wall on either side of the broken glass and reassemble as a unit. While the repair will consist of replacing the broken glass with new laminated glass, care will be taken to observe and document, by photo and measurement, the construction details of the curtain wall, observation of individual components and their base metal (brass, copper, or iron) and fit up detail.”

Once the work is done, it will be time to begin again. Under the heading, “Future Maintenance Considerations,” ICC said, “Relating to lighthouses in general, once a restoration is complete, you begin planning for the next one. These structures are old and exposed to the harshest environments.”

The company recommended “instituting a five-year cycle of inspections where problems can be noted early and dealt with while small.”

ICC said to plan on painting the exterior iron about every 7 to 10 years to keep it in good condition, and to pay attention to the ventilation: “Open vents on sunny days, and close or cover them when rain is expected.”