If you’ve ever met anyone involved in the preservation, upkeep, historical fact-finding or the general day-to-day operations of the Montauk Lighthouse, you may well become convinced that this glorious 1796 structure is held together by the mortar of sheer collective dedication. But there’s a lot more to it than passion.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that the lighthouse, and the eroded lands surrounding it, have been undergoing some thoroughly major work aimed at keeping it around for another couple of centuries. But you can’t simply slap a coat of paint on a near-230-year-old national historic landmark and call it a day. That’s just the icing on the seaside cake.
“There’s no playbook or manual to go back and say, you know, what’s inside of here? How did they build this?” says Joseph Gaviola, the president of Montauk Historical Society and the current lighthouse keeper. “It’s been decades of planning and four years of work.” And that’s just for the George Washington-commissioned 110-foot tower and its adjacent building that houses the museum and its gift shop, offices and keeper’s apartment.
Add to that the ravaged shoreline, encroaching all too close to those irreplaceable historic buildings, and the tens of millions of dollars it cost to make sure that they would stay put for decades to come, and you have an undertaking of oceanic proportions. But willing the way to success, this summer saw the final, and thoroughly awe-inspiring, completion of it all. They’ve done it, by George — and here’s how.
From the ground way up
There would be no point in fixing up a building if there’s no terra firma underneath it — at one point an alarmingly all-too-likely possibility at the lighthouse.
“In 1792, these planners surmised that [through] geology and coastal storms, a foot a year was the basic loss. And in 200 years, we lost 200 feet,” says Greg Donohue, an erosion specialist who’s been working on keeping the lighthouse from falling into the ocean for the last five decades or so. “They were right on the money.”
In addition to being a beacon for sailors, during World War II the lighthouse was a station of defense to protect the Brooklyn Navy Yard 115 miles to the west. The Army Corps of Engineers built a 900-foot sea wall in 1946 to bolster the bluff, but that was the last significant bit of environmental aid. Maintenance on the tower (along with other lighthouses) and the sea wall became a burden on both finances and time for the Coast Guard over the years.
Around 1970, the looming erosion of Montauk Point and Turtle Hill where the lighthouse stands caught the attention of a textile designer and avid gardener, Giorgina Reed, who’d created a literal grass-roots terracing system to save her own waterfront home from impending doom in Rocky Point. Tiny in stature but determined and brainy, Reed took it upon herself to apply her successful technique to the plateau’s craggy sea wall and spent years doggedly sculpting and reworking the cliffs with a mind to save them.
Donohue first came to Montauk like many young men did in the early ’70s, attracted by the waves and all that came with them, but not long after he became interested in Reed’s continuing work and was entranced by the lighthouse and its incredible history. He joined in Reed’s seemingly impossible task, starting his long career in bluff stabilization and creating a box-terracing system to aid in staving off the inevitable, although he likes to downplay his vital role.
“I’m a hill ape,” he dead-pans, with the hint of a smile. “I came here in 1973 looking for surf and girls.”
Reed and Donohue’s work caught the attention of the Coast Guard, who aided with $200,000 that went to hiring the construction firm Chesterfield Associates, which put in gaping cages and rocks that added toe protection to the bluff and Reed and Donohue’s determined sculpting and terracing.
All of this was a just a bandage, however. But once the lighthouse was given National Historic Landmark status by the National Park Service in 2012, that gave Donohue and the Historical Society the ammunition they needed. A deal was struck in 2021 with the Army Corps of Engineers to shore up the water-ravaged spit of land so the tower and surrounding buildings wouldn’t, quite literally, fall into the ocean.
The former surfer’s passionate work and commitment over the years made Donohue a key liaison on this $30 million-plus project, which reconstructed 1,000 feet along the shoreline, recycling any usable 10-ton stones from the previous bolstering, and adding in 10- to 15-ton armor stones as well as ground-securing vegetation to stabilize the whole kit and caboodle.
“We’re doing multi-generational work here and now,” says Gaviola. “Our revetment will protect the lighthouse and Turtle Hill for the next 100 years. And that’s something to be proud of.”
Keep the light on
Montauk Historical Society is a model of keeping the torch lit for preserving the past in order to present it to future generations. Founded in 1962, they currently oversee the Carl Fisher House, the Indian Museum, the Second House Museum and the big daddy, the Montauk Point Lighthouse, commissioned by President George Washington in 1792 and the first to be built in New York State. Certainly a building worth saving, and one the society took responsibility for after leasing the property from the Coast Guard in 1989, later buying it outright in 1996.
But doing that hasn’t proven to be the no-brainer one would expect. Through much toil and work, in 2012, the lighthouse became one of a dozen boat-guiding beacons in the country to be declared a National Historic Landmark. This happened not because of its link to President Washington — notable, yes, but apparently not a good enough reason for the federal government to get on board. The historical society needed to prove to the Secretary of the Interior the lighthouse’s vital contribution to U.S. historical development. In this case, that turned out to be guiding ships important to global trade.
“It took six years to make it a landmark. [We] went back to the original shipping logs of the 1780s to demonstrate the pivotal role of the lighthouse in global trade, especially between the U.S. and Europe — that was the clincher,” says Gaviola, whose commitment to the lighthouse began as a kid visiting Montauk. Now a full-time Montauk resident, Gaviola, the former chairman of the Suffolk County National Bank who made his career in wealth management, banking and as the owner of multiple small businesses in Montauk, has lived in the recently renovated lighthouse keeper’s apartment for the last four years, snuggled right up next to the lighthouse tower. He’s on call 24/7 to make sure whatever needs tending to gets done, be it a boater in danger or to deter trespassers on the lighthouse lands after hours.
Montauk Historical Society, currently led by executive director Mia Certic, and its Lighthouse Committee, came up with the cash and a multi-tiered plan to fix the most important pieces.
The three-phase repairs were funded by $1.8 million in private donations from corporate sponsors like Northwell Health, the Andy Sabin Family Foundation and Maurice and Sarah Iudicone, as well as a state grant, and started with the domed roof and vent ball at the very top of the tower. The cast-iron there was rusted and needed to be recoated, but because of OSHA safety regulations that put a halt to work if the wind blows more than 20 mph (which happens an awful lot in Montauk), that phase took an entire year.
Then came the hardest part of the renovation: re-pointing the mortar holding the entire tower together, which was built in 1796 by George McCollum, with its last restoration in 1860.
Patchwork had been done over the years, using Portland cement, which didn’t do a great job of expanding and contracting with the whims of weather, as cracks, spalls and bulges became ubiquitous around the sandstone tower. Studies and research, with expertise from builder board members of Montauk Historical Society David Webb and Nick Raconelli, also chairman of the not-for-profit’s capital campaign committee, revealed that the substance used to build the tower originally was lime putty mortar — and that’s what would be restored.
The contractor, Long Island-based Installation Specialties Group, went to school to learn the art of lime putty mortar. All the building’s joints were stripped, ground out and replaced with that substance, which will now better endure Montauk’s wild weather — storms and sun, frost and wind, sticky humidity and dry patches alike. Finally, to replace some of the deteriorated original sandstone blocks, the Lighthouse Committee and ISG located the original quarry in Connecticut and grabbed 15 tons of them, enough to replace what needed replacing, and shore up some extras for future fixes.
The building that is the keeper’s house, offices and museum got a refresh, too, with the whole circa-1860 building getting a reshingle and re-roof, a new front porch and a paint job to bring the keeper’s dwelling back to the colors of white and red, which were used when the Coast Guard initially took charge of it in 1938.
The final phase: re-coating the daymark — the design and colors painted on a lighthouse tower and keeper’s dwelling so it can be seen by boats during the day, especially when visibility isn’t terrific — with a fresh coat of paint, the last brushstroke hitting the sandstone structure in July.
The bonus project: a brand-new virtual aquarium, also wrapped up in July. The Montauk Historical Society worked with Vertigo, a German firm that specializes in 3D animation, and created 18 different digital renderings of local fish and sea creatures, like humpback whales, fluke, striped bass, bluefish and hammerhead sharks that respond to human movement. Wave a hand, and the fish swim away or the shark opens its mouth.
“It wasn’t just four years of work here, but the planning before that,” says Gaviola. “It took over a decade of ‘How do we attack this? How do we raise the money?’ But it’s really cool to save a 227-year-old structure. And it takes a team of good people.”