Lighthouse for Sale
The nostalgia of obsolete public property
If you look out into the Atlantic, past the Scituate, Massachusetts, harbor you can see Minot’s Ledge Light blinking 114 feet above the swell. For the past 150 years the lighthouse has warned boaters about the shallow, shipwrecking rocks close to shore, but recently the Coast Guard decided it wasn’t relevant anymore, and this fall the light became private property.
My dad grew up in the harbor the light protects, and my grandmother trolled for striped bass with a handline out past the ledge. Stories about the lighthouse dovetailed with our family’s history. Eight months pregnant with my father, my grandma pointed a skiff out into the teeth of a nor’easter to tie down her boat, the Little Gull, under the flash of the light. I get the lighthouse obsession from both sides. My mom did her architecture school thesis on lighthouses. She spent a summer visiting lights along the eastern seaboard. She started in Hatteras, North Carolina, near where she grew up and moved north, toward Hull, Mass., toward my dad.
Minot’s blinks 1–4–3, so people call it the “I Love You Light,” and before Ray J made it a bad R&B song, my parents would sign letters and then send texts 143. That lighthouse is part of our narrative, and I don’t think we’re the only weirdos who put emotional weight on places. I feel irrationally possessive of Minot’s light, even though I’ve never been in the tower. The fact that it no longer belongs to the public — that it’s owned by an individual who can turn it into a vacation house or tear it down — feels like a transgression.
Part of that is nostalgia. I think it’s the same kind of analog fascination that makes people want to slaughter their own chickens, or take up sewing, but it feels a little more exciting than that. It hits deeper, because it draws back to when you could get lost in the ocean, when you needed a beacon to bring you home.
But almost no one navigates just by visual markers these days, which is why in 2009, the Coast Guard decided that they didn’t need to hold on to Minot’s Ledge Light anymore. The U.S. General Services Administration, which is essentially the real estate arm of the government, was tasked with getting rid of it. That summer, they posted a notice of availability. No one bit on the original bid, and this June, they put it up again for $10,000. On October 13th, Bobby Sager, Polaroid’s chairman, won the auction and bought the lighthouse for $222,000.
It’s not just the Minot’s Ledge lighthouse that’s changing hands. The General Services Administration, which likes to call itself “The Nation’s Landlord,” is in charge of selling off any federal property that’s deemed irrelevant. Their website is full of Black Hawk helicopters and former cop cars.
Among the federal detritus, lighthouses are a special case. As a whole, they’re basically obsolete — they’re only designed to do one thing — but they’re also historically significant, so the feds don’t just want to flatten them. In 2000, the GSA, the Coast Guard and the Department of the Interior passed The National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, an amendment to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. It lets the federal government give away lighthouses to qualifying local governments, non-profits, or community development organizations. They try to put them in the hands of groups that will keep them open to the public, but sometimes, like in Minot’s case, no public entity wants the responsibility. Then the property goes to a private auction. Since the act passed, they’ve transferred ownership of 68 lighthouses to non-profits and historical commissions for free, and sold 39.
Minot’s light has been giving people feelings since it was built in 1860. The ledge it’s built on was notorious for wrecking boats because of its steep shelf and twitchy tides. Minot’s was constructed to replace an earlier light, which was swept away in a storm. Two lighthouse keepers were killed when it went down and they’re said to haunt the new house. I’m not sure if it’s the romance, or the ghosts, but it’s always drummed up a kind of fascination. The local brewery makes a Minot Light, Thoreau wrote about it, and it’s been used in ads for Cape Cod Cranberries and American Tobacco cigarettes.
Minot’s has a good story, but it’s not the only one that’s been celebrated. Artist, writers, and poets, from Marianne Moore to James Taylor, have canonized lighthouses. People name churches and rehab centers after them. “Beacon in a storm” might be one of the most overplayed metaphors of all time.
Lighthouses aren’t the only kind of obsolete public buildings that we put on a pedestal — I think people feel similarly about fire towers — but lights hit the crosshairs of history, design, adventure, and allegory.
The GSA says they’re “a symbol of the strength and longevity of our country’s trading practices and communal spirit.” In less governmenty terms they’re markers of a kind of simplicity and purposeful adventure, which is now all but obsolete. Unlike my grandmother, I’m not pulling bass into a boat by hand. I barely know how to read a nautical chart (although there is an app for that), and sometimes, even though it’s irrational, that feels like a loss.
Some of the people purchasing auctioned lighthouses feel the same as me, and they’re buying them to save them. Last year, in Boston Harbor, just north of Scituate, Dave Waller bought Graves Island Light, which is a direct design copy of Minot’s, for $933,888. At the time it was the most anyone had paid for a lighthouse. To find the money, he and his wife mortgaged their house, as did his mom, to help them out. “We went all in,” he says. He says he didn’t have any solid reason for buying it, just that same deep-seated nostalgia and a long-standing but loose family tie. As a kid, he sailed by it in his dad’s boat.
Waller has done a ton of work on the tower. He’s rechinked the granite blocks to make it watertight, and put in running water and electricity. He’s arguably made it better. He’s says he’s planning to open it up for occasional tours, and that the response has been really good. Lighthouse fanatics have reached out to tell him they’re glad he’s renovating it, and that they can see the good parts of private ownership.
But, ultimately he’s turning it into a vacation house. “I kind of feel guilty buying it, taking it, and making it mine, because it was built with public money, but it was put up for free to non-profits first and there were no takers.”
Minot’s future is still up in the air. Sager hasn’t officially said anything about what he’s planning to do; he’s actually been radio silent since the sale. But Waller, who has been in close touch with him because Sager was the other bidder for the Graves light, says that he’s talked to him about his plans, and that, for now, he’s going to leave it untouched. The light, which is powered by solar batteries, will still flash, and the Coast Guard will come by every once in a while to check on it. Sager grew up in Malden, on the North Shore of Massachusetts, so maybe he just has that same nostalgia-fueled fascination. Maybe he just wants to be able to see it flash.
No one in my family lives in the Scituate harbor anymore, and it’s morphed from a fishing town to a summer vacation spot for people from Boston. Most of the boats in the harbor have the names of other places across their sterns, and the dock where my grandma used to drop her catch is now lined with tchotchke shops. Last summer we went back and piled cousins and aunts into a rented house. At night we’d take beers out to the back porch and count the pulses from the light, picking out which ones said “love” and which ones said “you.”