By Mia Certic, Executive Director, Montauk Historical Society
Since 1796, the Montauk Lighthouse on New York’s easternmost point has been lighting the way to safety for mariners — from whaling ships and steamers to submarines to fishing and sailing vessels. Its beacon flashes every five seconds and is visible from a distance of 19 nautical miles. A noted landmark for both local residents and visitors from across the globe — typically 100,000 people cross its threshold every year — it is one of Long Island’s most beloved icons. This National Historic Landmark was commissioned by President George Washington in 1792 and is the oldest lighthouse in New York State and the fourth oldest in the nation. Today it is entirely owned and maintained by the Montauk Historical Society, a 501(c) (3) not-for-profit organization — and it is embarking on a major restoration.
Over the course of nearly 225 years, the severe weather conditions at Montauk Point have taken their toll on the Lighthouse, causing extreme moisture damage that threatened to weaken its stability. A feasibility study in 2016, conducted by International Chimney and BCA Consulting Group, and supported by further engineering review, concluded that the structure required urgent measures to prevent it from deteriorating further. Work was begun in 2019.
From Restoring the Façade and the Joints, to Cleaning and Coating the Sandstone
The Lighthouse’s distinctive lantern and related metal work were in dire need of repair. Water was seeping through its corroded portions, infiltrating the cavity between the tower’s inner and outer walls, and then freezing. This caused significant cracking, bulging, and spalling of the original stones, resulting in problematic degradation. Installation Specialties Group, which specializes in historical renovation and preservation, with oversight by ARI Tech Rep, Inc., was contracted to conduct the restoration, beginning with the lantern and metals.
A budget of $1.3 million was established to complete this project. A New York State grant for $438,500 was secured, and additional fundraising is ongoing. The three phases of the project are:
• Phase 1 – Restoration of the uppermost part of the tower, beginning with the lightning rod, vent ball, upper and lower catwalks, and extending to a brick addition built in 1860, which added 30 feet to its height. This phase was completed in 2019.
• Phase 2 – Renovation of the structure’s sandstone and mortar joints by highly skilled masons. The paint on the tower is being stripped, and the hard Portland cement mortar that had been used for previous repairs is being removed. Traditional, more malleable lime putty mortar, premixed for this specific application, will be used to repoint the joints. This phase is ongoing.
• Phase 3 – In the final phase of the restoration project, the tower’s sandstone structure will be cleaned, repainted and sealed with a Keim mineral-based coating that is compatible with mineral substrates and will help to mitigate problems associated with humidity and condensation.
As might be expected, the pandemic interrupted progress on the restoration, but it is back on track, with completion anticipated in 2022.
$30.7 Million Lighthouse Bluff Revetment
Since its construction in 1796, erosion has been a growing concern for the Montauk Lighthouse, and efforts have been made to address this issue for many years. One notable volunteer initiative began in the 1970s when so much land had been lost so rapidly that the lighthouse threatened to vanish into the sea. At that point, textile designer Giorgina Reid — now credited with saving the Lighthouse — gathered a band of volunteers to shore up the bluff. For over fifteen years, they toiled together on the cliff side, employing her patented Reed Trench Terracing Technique to fend off the ravages of the Atlantic. Financial support came from an unexpected, but very welcome, source when Montauk homeowner Paul Simon performed in his legendary “Back to the Ranch” concert in 1990, featuring a guest appearance by Billy Joel, and donated the profits to erosion control efforts at the Lighthouse.
Ultimately, though, the Atlantic Ocean proved the dominant force, and it became clear that protecting the bluff would require much more significant funding. In January 2021, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, along with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, announced the award of a $30.7 million contract to create a revetment at Montauk Point and protect the Lighthouse from erosion. The revetment will involve the placement of 65,000 tons of boulders along a stretch of about 1,000 linear feet of shoreline, as well as slope stabilization with terracing and vegetation above the rocks. The Montauk Historical Society will monitor the work — slated to begin this spring — and will be responsible for maintaining the site after the project is complete.
An Historical Restoration for a Centuries-Old Lighthouse
The restoration of the Lighthouse tower, together with the revetment project, represent the most extensive works on this historic structure since it was built over two centuries ago. They will protect our National Historic Landmark for generations to come, allowing it to continue steering seafarers safely into port and welcoming them home. ■