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New Museum to Celebrate Lighthouses
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Interior rendering of museum which features educational displays
One of the design challenges was distilling the educational displays into a smaller space than originally planned. The museum hopes to move into a larger historic building on the site. © Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership

A location steeped in the history of lighthouses will be the site of a museum dedicated to the structures as well as a mixed-use development project.

August 12, 2014—Most motorists driving down Bay Street on Staten Island, New York, likely never consider what is behind the historical red brick wall along its side—overgrown with ivy—or wonder why its prominent gate leads into a forgotten field, overgrown with small trees. But this long overlooked site, with a view of New York Harbor, is about to undergo an ambitious rehabilitation and development project.

Leaders marked an early milestone of a small portion of this transformation on August 7, with the ceremonial opening of the nascent National Lighthouse Museum. The museum will be housed for the next several years in a restored machine shop building on the grounds of what was for decades one of the most important industrial sites in United States: the U.S. Lighthouse Service Depot.

“The significance of the site is really important,” says Miguel Cardenas, a senior design associate in the New York City firm Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership (LHSA+DP), the museum’s architects. “[The] lighthouse depot...furnished equipment, uniforms, and lenses—everything—to every lighthouse in the nation at that time.”

The depot was the center of lighthouse administration in the United States from its opening during the Civil War in 1863 until it became a U.S. Coast Guard facility in 1939. The site officially closed in 1966, and is now controlled by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCDEC).

In addition to the machine shop, the site features three prominent historic buildings: the original lamp shop; a later, larger lamp shop; and an administration building with a mansard roof. The complex supplied the massive Fresnel lens assemblies to lighthouses that enabled them to direct light far from the shore. Some of these massive glass lenses are as much as 12 ft tall. The site is also centrally located to more than a dozen picturesque lighthouses on the East Coast, making it a natural stop for tourists. 

Historical office building and lighthouse depot complex in Staten Island, New York

Plans for the site include the preservation of all the key historic
structures, including this administration building with a distinctive
mansard roof. Wikimedia Commons/Peter Greenberg

Cardenas says that the firm began work on the project in 2000, when it prepared a master plan for the site that would have extended the museum across all of the historic buildings there. This ambitious plan would have involved extensive restoration of the structures, some of which are significantly deteriorated. The level of fund-raising for such an extensive project was prohibitive.

“The hope is—in the hopefully not-too-far future—that the building adjacent to this, which is Building 10, will become the true National Lighthouse Museum,” Cardenas says. “Right now, they are calling this the National Lighthouse Museum Resource Center. It is small scale. They are a small organization. The idea is to then keep this as an educational resource center and then have a true, larger museum with more content and artifacts.”

The robust brick machine shop required little renovation for the project in part because the area was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The site was inundated by 4 ft of water at one point in the storm, and as a result, the NYCEDC commissioned an extensive cleanup that included stabilization and new mechanical systems for the building.

One of the greatest challenges of the project was distilling what had been a much larger museum plan into the approximately 2,600 sq ft footprint of the machine shop structure. Building 10, a lamp shop built in 1907, is a large, three-story brick structure immediately behind the machine shop. Cardenas, who is an expert in display design, said they have focused on three key areas: the purpose of lighthouses, the people connected with them, and the technology and architecture of the structures.

“There are great people stories. As we learned more and more about it, it’s an isolated life in a way. Some of people raised their families in these lighthouses and lived there. Some are connected to the mainland, but many are not. Lighthouse tenders [brought] supplies to them—food and clothing—on a regular basis,” he explains.

The museum is just one part of the redevelopment puzzle for area. In April, the NYCDEC and Triangle Equities agreed on a lease for a portion of the site, clearing the way for a $200-million mixed-use development to be known as Lighthouse Point. Plans call for the development to include a hotel, retail shops, restaurants, open public spaces, and more than 100 residential units.

Preservation and rehabilitation of the historic buildings, the wall, and underground storage tunnels will be part of the development project. The site is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The terms of the agreement stipulate that the developer will work with state and local preservation authorities, obtaining approvals for plans that impact the historic elements of the site.

In the meantime, the National Lighthouse Museum continues fund-raising for an eventual move into Building 10.


 

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