For the Golden Years, a Bright Idea

Barrons.com

"For how would you like to be shut up for a whole month at a time, and possibly more in stormy weather, upon a rock the size of a tennis lawn...; and to have no letters or newspapers, and to see nobody...; to see the same dreary waves breaking week after week, and then a dreadful storm coming, and the windows covered with spray, and birds dashed against the lamp, and the whole place rocking, and not be able to put your nose out of doors for fear of being swept into the sea? How would you like that?"

-- To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

TURNS OUT, VIRGINIA, THERE ARE PLENTY of people who would like it. They've been snapping up offshore lighthouses from the federal government, which has dozens for sale for as little as $30,000, and turning the neglected 19th-century structures into luxurious cottages for weekend getaways, business meetings and retirement recreation.

Lonely as the life of a lighthouse keeper might seem, the new occupants can't get enough time on their remote islands. Scott Holman, an experienced underwater explorer who owns and operates two major foundries in Freeland, Mich., uses his Granite Rocks lighthouse, 12 miles offshore in Lake Superior, for corporate board meetings when he's not weekending there.

More from Barron's Online:

A New Life in Panama?

Big Changes in the Works for Asset Managers

Weathering the Market Storm in Style

"It's a great retreat," says Holman, who was one of the first private citizens to buy a lighthouse. There's no fear of a director wandering far from deliberations for a round of golf: Holman's refurbished lighthouse sits on two and a half acres of granite. And the weather on the temperamental Lake Superior can be unpredictable. Granite Island is famous for its fog. The lake itself hosts storms that best anything on the saltwater oceans. On Jan. 18, 2003, Holman's weather gauges record winds of 143 miles per hour.

Dan Billingsley, an engineer and accomplished ocean sailor from Annapolis, Md., partnered with his brother-in-law to buy the 1,100-square-foot, cast-iron "sparkplug" lighthouse atop a concrete- and iron-encased cement piling in the Chesapeake Bay at Hampton Roads, Va., for $31,000. They are spending weekends and $100,000 in materials to restore the Newport News Middleground Lighthouse's exterior and turn the interior into a vacation home. The partners have been working for two summers now, aided by family volunteers. They expect their work to be finished in another eight months.

"It's been a lot of fun," says Billingsley, 58, whose wife also is an engineer and whose two sons are engineering students. One recent treat was watching sailboat races from the lighthouse's deck, 15 feet above the water. It was like watching a horse race from a seat at the inside rail.

View gallery

.
[alone]
The Delaware Bay Light sold for $200,000. Dozens of lighthouses are being auctioned off after satellite technology and solar-powered buoys made them obsolete.

THE LIGHTHOUSES WERE OWNED by the U.S. Coast Guard, which no longer needs most of them. New technologies like global-positioning satellites and signal-buoys powered by solar cells have rendered most of the 300 Coast Guard lighthouses obsolete (though at some, the new owners work with the Coast Guard to keep the lights burning).

Sales are handled by the General Services Administration, which advertises the properties and accepts bids online (go to www.cr.nps.gov/maritime and www.auctionrp.com/auctions2). Thirty-seven lighthouses have been transferred to the GSA since 2006, some for as much as $250,000, and another 51 are being transferred for sale.

Historical societies and municipalities generally get first crack at the most desirable lighthouses -- those on the edge of the shore -- but there are still plenty for the public to pick from, and some states, like Virginia and Maryland, offer decent tax breaks.

Robert Trapani Jr., executive director of the American Lighthouse Foundation says the lighthouses are fairly spacious, most with four floors. Buyers should be careful to check out the foundations of cement surrounded by cast iron, which is often 30 feet into the water and seabed. Ice flows can damage the structures, "so stability is an issue," he says. Ralph Conner, who runs the sales for the GSA, says most serious bidders visit the lighthouses with a structural engineer in tow.

Holman, an engineer whose companies make parts for offshore oil rigs, paid $86,000 for his lighthouse. He ferried contractors to and from the island hundreds of times for the extensive renovation project, which ran to six-figures. He had roofers install zinc shingles that replicated the asbestos-shingle look of the original and completely gutted the interior plaster walls, which had been ruined by rainwater, and replaced them with sheetrock.

He rewired the house and installed solar panels and wind generators for power. He had the old wood floors refinished, installed new kitchen cabinets and appliances, and had masons repair the island's 400 steps and walkways.

View gallery

.
[lightonedge]
This old light, 12 miles offshore in lake Superior, on Granite Island, is now the weekend retreat of businessman Scott Holman.

Because it was so difficult to land a boat by the rocks, Holman ordered a 22-foot Zodiac, a type of boat that has a hard bottom and inflatable sides. He logged 3,000 miles on it in less than three months, but the boat wasn't always up to the job. Once, he says, Superior's rough waves partially split the craft on a return trip; the operator managed to make it ashore only after using wire to tie the sides of the boat together. The manufacturer eventually replaced that boat and, in the meantime, Holman bought a 30-foot Zodiac with a cabin to complete the work.

Billingsley has had his share of daunting experiences, too. He said it took several weeks to clean his lighthouse of bird droppings, feathers, eggs, and nesting materials. He installed a hoist to lift a 750-pound diesel generator and other equipment into place (and rebuilt it when it burned out), and put in such niceties as a $2,000 marine toilet.

So what in the end does a lighthouse owner really get? "It looked like a unique summer cottage," Billingsley says. "But it's more like a giant tree fort."

E-mail comments to: editors@barrons.com

Rates

View Comments (0)