Keeping up the light
FIRE ISLAND—One of the most iconic structures along the Great South Bay and Long Island as a whole is the historic Fire Island Lighthouse, which has stood in its spot just past the eastern end of Robert Moses State Parkway since its initial construction in 1858. Nowadays, the beloved and heavily visited structure is undergoing construction to remediate portions damaged during Hurricane Sandy. In the meantime, the dedicated members of the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society (FILPS) continue to preserve and showcase this beloved jewel that many local residents can still see illuminating from across the bay.
According to a news release issued by the National Park Service, the bulk of the Lighthouse’s restoration work taking place along its southwest corner is slated for completion in June. The $1.2 million capital project – conducted by New Jersey-based company Ocean Construction, LLC – consists of the repair of portions of the old brick wall and terrace, as well as disassembling the southwest corner of the terrace in order to restore and strengthen the substructure and brick. Pavers will also be reset to allow for a more uniformly slanted surface to allow for efficient drainage during future flooding events.
In fact, while all of the mortars along the base of the lighthouse will be replaced, each piece of the original bluestone will go back exactly where it was laid in 1858.
“They’re taking every piece of bluestone off and replacing it,” said FILPS program director Amanda Vaskas. “They have to put every piece exactly back where they found it.”
During this time, construction might facilitate the closure of the front door of the keeper’s quarters. However, access to the tower and museum will remain available via the western Fresnel Lens Building (showcasing the structure’s original light) and from the northern bay boardwalk.
FILPS was formed in 1982 as a response to the structure’s possible demolition. In response, the society managed to raise over $1.3 million in funds to save and restore the lighthouse. Since its creation, FILPS’s mission has been to work in tandem with the National Park Service to help preserve the nautical heritage of both Fire Island and Long Island, and to assure that the monument remains a critical part of history and heritage.
Today, FILPS continues its work, as its Board of Directors, staff and volunteers consistently maintain the lighthouse, archive its rich history, improve displays, and expand its wide range of programs. Without any stable outside funding, the group raises all of its funds through fundraising, and just recently, through grant funding.
The lighthouse features two whole floors of interactive exhibits, an immersive 182-step tower tour, a brand new Fresnel Lens Building and displays showcasing the original light; a historic boathouse utilized by former lighthouse workers; scenic views along both the Atlantic Ocean and Great South Bay; spectacular interactions with local animals and creatures such as birds, butterflies, foxes and deer; as well as a year-round gift shop and school, scout and private tours.
Members of the FILPS staff explained why the lighthouse continues to draw so many people from around the world each year and why so many others remain invested in its preservation and future.
“You see an iconic building like this in the middle of this desolate area,” said Vaskas. “It is a beacon to people. But what we’re seeing here is the hospitality – the repeat visitor. It’s really our main goal here.”
“I think it’s an icon for the surrounding area that has a history which the society is perpetuating,” said FILPS executive director David Griese, who noted that this was probably the lighthouse that people saw when they first came into Ellis Island in the 1850s. “And it’s all occurring because of a building. If the building was not here, neither would the history, either.
“So the building is representing the history of what was here, and when you understand what your history is, it kind of relates to who you are and who your being is,” added Griese. “Preservation is directly related to retaining that history and that relationship.”
Upcoming special events include a lighthouse keeper’s Behind the Scenes Tour on Saturday, June 10, and the 16th annual Juried Art Show from June 23-July 16, with a special reception on June 22 from 6-9 p.m. A new book about the lighthouse, entitled “Fire Island Lighthouse: Long Island’s Welcoming Beacon,” was recently written by author Bill Bleyer, and is available for sale.
For more information on the Fire Island Lighthouse, FILPS, and upcoming events/initiatives, visit www.fireislandlighthouse.com.
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