Lighthouses were built to serve a purpose—to guide mariners along the treacherous coastline, protecting their lives and cargo. But as technology evolved, the beacons and their keepers became obsolete, leaving many of the structures to the ravages of time and the elements, or, for some like the Shinnecock Lighthouse, to the ravages of demolition.
The Cedar Island Light in East Hampton is one exception. Suffolk County and the Long Island Chapter of the US Lighthouse Society are working to save and refurbish the structure, with the end game being a bed-and-breakfast for visitors that will sustain itself financially—and to that end, the Suffolk County Legislature last month agreed to spend $500,000 to put a new roof on the building.
The lighthouse seems to have been destined to become a domicile, at least for the past 80-plus years. Commissioned in 1830 and decommissioned about a century later, the beacon was replaced in 1934 by an automated, skeletal tower at the southern end of the property, which grew to 6 acres after the island became attached to the mainland in the Hurricane of 1938. The land at Cedar Island—which sits in Northwest Harbor overlooking Gardiner’s Bay—as well as the lighthouse itself were considered surplus by the Department of Commerce, which put the property on the auction block, attracting an interesting roster of bidders. According to a report in The New York Herald Tribune at the time, the hope was that “someone would want the tiny island for a summer home or for boating.”
Three bids came in for Cedar Island. Miss Isabel Pierce of 453 Madison Avenue bid $1,050 and reportedly was “dismayed at her lack or success.” Jerome Monks bid $1,500 because “he and his seven children were ‘fascinated’ by the prospect of such a possession,” according to The New York Times at the time, and “planned to take boat rides from their summer place on Cedar Point to the little island.”
The highest bid—$2,002—came from Phelan Beale, a partner in the New York law firm Bouvier Beale, which he started with the grandfather of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, “Major” John Vernou Bouvier Jr. In 1917, Beale married Bouvier’s daughter, Edith Ewing Bouvier, who later came to be known as Big Edie, and along with her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale, Little Edie, a subject of the cult documentary “Grey Gardens.”
Phelan Beale had purchased Grey Gardens on Georgica Pond in East Hampton in 1926, by which time he and Edith had already separated. When they officially divorced in 1931, Grey Gardens went to Edith Beale.
An avid sportsman, Phelan Beale had created the Grey Goose Gun Club of Cedar Point and was already leasing 452 acres on what is now Cedar Point Park. His plan for the lighthouse was to turn it into a hunting lodge. In 1937 he told The Times that he had purchased the island and the lighthouse because “it would be ‘a damned nuisance’ to have strangers around.” In addition, he reportedly said, he “wanted to preserve the lighthouse as a ‘monument to the past’ and felt that the tiny .947-acre island was an integral part of the mainland.”
Beale planned to upgrade the lighthouse, complete with electricity and running water, but apparently that never came to pass.
For four years, he rented it out to Isabel and Winthrop Bradley of Connecticut as a summer retreat, and the Bradleys bought the property in 1943. Mrs. Bradley, formerly Isabel Pierce—one of the bidders who’d lost to Phelan Beale—had a keen interest in interior decorating. Just two years earlier she had been charged with decorating the Government House in the Bahamas for her longtime friend the Duchess of Windsor, whose husband, formerly King Edward VIII of Great Britain, was serving as governor of the Bahamas. “Together we are going to dish this shack up so that at least one isn’t ashamed of asking the local horrors here,” the duchess is quoted as having said in the book “The Duke of Windsor’s War.”
Mrs. Bradley brought that sense of style and decor along with her to the Cedar Island Lighthouse. “If there’s a single attribute of luxurious living lacking at Privy Light [another name for the Cedar Island Light] it has just come on the market, for there are nine rooms of solid comfort plus a charming decorating job accomplished in the simple semi-New England manner,” said an undated article by Theodora Sohst.
Isabel Bradley held on to the lighthouse until 1967, when she sold it to Suffolk County for $50,690.
Suffolk County had already purchased, in 1965, what would make up the bulk of the 608 acres that is now known as Cedar Point County Park. Two parcels were purchased from First National City Trust, trustees for the Astor family, for $768,000—a parcel from the Grace family for $567,000 and two other parcels for $801. The acquisition of the lighthouse in 1967 was the jewel in the crown that completed the park.
The lighthouse remained in good condition until a fire ripped though it in June 1974. Accounts of what caused the fire vary, with some blaming vandals, and others, county workers who used welding torches to seal the windows and doors with metal plates.
Russell Cullum was out on his boat with this family “when his daughter who was driving called out that there was smoke on the beach,” Newsday reported at the time. “My wife and I were in the back opening up bait,” he told the reporter. “I saw some smoke on the beach and thought someone was burning rubbish or lighting a fire. There was so much wind, you couldn’t tell where the smoke was coming from.’”
It was a full three hours later, when the family returned from their fishing trip, that “they saw much more smoke and realized it was pouring out of the lighthouse,” and Mr. Cullum called the fire department.
The sand spit leading out to the lighthouse was precarious at best for heavy fire equipment. “We sent five trucks with 66 men out there, but we only used the one the one truck with four wheel drive,” Richard Gray of the East Hampton Fire Department told Newsday at the time. “We couldn’t get the ladder trucks in there. … The fire basically burned itself out.”
The blaze took its toll on the lighthouse. The interior, described as “beautiful oak,” was gutted. The fire burned so hot that it cracked the heavy granite shell in places. It turned out that the lighthouse was uninsured by the county, so funds were not available for restoration. A month or so after the blaze, the county tried to minimally repair the lighthouse by shoring it up, patching cracks and installing a new roof to prevent further damage.
The Cedar Island Light languished in a strange and lonely limbo. Over the years, many groups made efforts to restore it, including the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, the Suffolk County Historical Trust and the Cedar Island Lighthouse Fund.
Then, in 2002, the Suffolk County Parks Department and the Long Island Chapter of the US Lighthouse Society succeeded in getting the lighthouse on the National Registry of Historic Places.
From that point on, preservation efforts have been ramped up. An original oil house on the property was restored in 2004, and in November 2013, the 145-year-old, 7,000-pound steel lantern was removed by crane and transported by barge to Sag Harbor to be stabilized, sandblasted, primed and re-painted at a cost of about $25,000. The lantern will be returned to its perch after the roof has been repaired.
By the summer of 2014, the county and the lighthouse society had announced plans to make the lighthouse a self-sustaining bed-and-breakfast.
Michael Leahy, chairman of the Cedar Island Lighthouse Restoration and president of the Long Island Chapter of the US Lighthouse Society, says the model for the bed-and-breakfast is a similar lighthouse in Saugerties, New York. The Saugerties Lighthouse was built in 1869, the same year as the one at Cedar Island, with the same Italianate style and a similar layout. The main difference is that the exterior of Cedar Island’s Light is Boston granite, while the Saugerties Light is red brick.
The Saugerties Light has two bedrooms, as will the Cedar Point Light. The rooms at the Saugerties Light rent for about $275 a night.
“I think the people who go out there would get the feel of what is was like to be a 19th-century lighthouse keeper,” Mr. Leahy said.
“The historic Cedar Island Lighthouse is of great significance to the residents of the East End,” said Suffolk County Second District Legislator Bridget Fleming, who secured the funding for the lighthouse, in a recent press release. She called the new roof an “important first step” in the restoration of a community resource.