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Aug 15, 2017 3:01 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Architects Chosen To Renovate Cedar Island Lighthouse In Sag Harbor

The Cedar Island Lighouse.  PRESS FILE
Aug 15, 2017 6:06 PM

The Cedar Island Lighthouse, once a beacon for Sag Harbor’s bustling whaling industry, will be restored more than four decades after it was gutted by a fire in 1974.

On Monday afternoon, a consortium of local officials and community members met at Long Wharf in Sag Harbor to announce that an architectural firm had been selected to lead renovations focusing on the roof and exterior of the lighthouse, which sits in Northwest Harbor overlooking Gardiners Bay.

The Suffolk County Legislature voted unanimously in November to appropriate $500,000 for the work, the first step toward converting the historic lighthouse into a self-sustaining bed-and-breakfast inn.

“The county has skin in the game,” County Legislator Bridget Fleming said at Long Wharf on Monday. The renovations will help allow the Cedar Island Lighthouse “to become a part of the Sag Harbor economy,” she added.

The renovation project will be contracted to Lee H. Skolnick Architecture, a firm founded by two Sag Harbor residents, Lee Skolnick and Paul Alter. The pair are no strangers to lighthouses or East End architecture: The firm worked on the Staten Island Lighthouse, Montauk Point Lighthouse, East Hampton Library and Guild Hall.

But this project is “the crowning jewel,” Mr. Skolnick said. “I’ve never seen such big granite blocks on a lighthouse. It is a magnificent structure. We’re thrilled.”

Mr. Skolnick will focus on stabilizing the lighthouse, which is propped on a plinth. The roof, which is caving in, will also be replaced and the exterior will be waterproofed. Design plans are scheduled to be finalized by January, and construction will begin immediately after, but without a definite deadline for completion.

For now, the interior will not be touched, although Mr. Skolnick plans to submit a proposal for that work as well. When exterior renovations are completed, the county will begin to field proposals for interior restoration.

“This is really a private-public partnership,” State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., a Sag Harbor resident, said of the county’s partnership with Mr. Skolnick’s firm. “This is something that, frankly, before [the private sector] showed up, was an idea. It wasn’t until recently that action was taken.”

Prior to the historic hurricane of 1938, which filled in surrounding water with sand, the Cedar Point Lighthouse rested on an island of merely 2 acres. The original structure was built in 1839 as a one-and-a half-story keeper’s residence and a small tower made out of wood. But by 1858, the structure was crippled, its wooden frame unable to support its cast-iron beacon.

In 1868, Congress allocated $25,000 to construct a new lighthouse, one with a 40-foot tower and a granite interior shell, that would serve as a navigational aid to whaling ships that traversed the narrow waterways. Almost 150 years later, it survives, albeit barely.

As was the fate of most Long Island lighthouses during that time, the Cedar Island Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1934. From then, it was privately owned—for a period by Phelan Beale, an uncle of Jacqueline Kennedy—until the Suffolk County Parks Department purchased it in 1967.

The beacon remained in relatively good condition until 1974, when a fire ravaged the oak interior and cracked the granite shell. Firefighters could not get their equipment past the sand spit leading up to the lighthouse, and the blaze burned itself out, eviscerating the structure’s innards.

The lighthouse languished in limbo for 50 years. A number of restoration efforts failed to gain traction—until 2010, when the plans to convert the nationally registered historic site into a bed-and-breakfast were set in motion.

The contract with Lee H. Skolnick Architecture is the first tangible step toward that goal.

“Lighthouses are iconic symbols of Long Island,” Kara Hahn, chair of the Suffolk County Parks and Recreation Committee, said at Monday’s gathering. “Making sure that we preserve and restore them is important to our sense of place here, economic development and to community.”

There is precedent for a bed-and-breakfast conversion: A similar model exists in a lighthouse in Saugerties, New York, that was built the same year as the Cedar Island Lighthouse, said Michael Leahy, chair of the Cedar Island Lighthouse Restoration and president of the Long Island Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society.

Cedar Island Lighthouse’s L-shaped keeper’s residence contains nine rooms that can potentially be rented. If all goes according to plan, the money received by renting out rooms will sustain the lighthouse’s upkeep. County officials hope that the unique hotel will also attract tourists who will help vitalize the local economy.

Mr. Thiele said he plans to work with State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle to secure state funds from the 2018 budget to further support the project and bolster an ongoing fundraising campaign.

“This is critical for our economy,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said of the importance of local culture to tourism. “It’s part of what makes us special.”

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