Published June 23. 2013 4:00AM
Old Saybrook - The 48-foot Saybrook Breakwater Light, featured on the state's "Preserve the Sound" license plates, is up for sale.
The lighthouse is one of 34 surviving "sparkplug" lighthouses, a round, offshore style of lighthouse commonly built in the late 1880s and early 1900s. Saybrook Breakwater Light is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, so when the Coast Guard decided that the structure was no longer critical to its operations, government agencies tried to find a qualified steward to preserve it.
"Historic lighthouses are unique in that they hold sentimental and tangible value as historic properties, and continue to serve as maritime aids to navigation," said Patrick Sclafani, a public affairs officer at the General Services Administration. "GSA works in partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Interior National Park Service to find new stewards to help preserve an important part of the nation's maritime history historic lighthouses."
Government agencies and certified nonprofits are eligible to become stewards, a job that requires the organization to open the lighthouse to the public at least occasionally. To qualify for stewardship, an applicant must be financially viable and capable of handling the maintenance and preservation needs of an historic lighthouse.
In the case of the Saybrook Breakwater Light, however, no applications were received from qualified stewards. So the GSA has put it up for auction. As of June 21, only two people had bid on the building, with the highest bid at $31,000.
Lighthouses have sold between $25,000 and $381,000, said Sclafani. The price can vary based on size, ease of access and condition.
The building's accessibility and condition are two factors that can deter potential lighthouse owners. GSA has held over 50 auctions for offshore lighthouses and successful bidders tend to be well-informed about the challenges of owning a lighthouse, said Meta Cushing, a GSA employee.
Their purchase "is an historic structure and remains a working navigational aid," explained Cushing. "All the lights need work. They have no utilities and often are difficult to access by boat. So the winners are resourceful and not afraid of the demands of these structures."
Saybrook Breakwater Light is accessible only by boat and subject to flooding by tidal surges, and the 2,750-foot stone breakwater it sits on is owned by the U.S. Coast Guard. It contains asbestos and may have lead-based paint, and pictures on GSA's website show rust on the white cast-iron structure. The new owner will also be responsible for maintaining the property in accordance with the Secretary of Interior's standards.
In addition to those challenges, the Coast Guard will have access to the structure once it is sold so that it can maintain the navigational aids. The lighthouse will continue to be operational, flashing a green optic beacon every six seconds and sound a fog signal blast every 30 seconds when necessary.
Several other lighthouses in the area have been recently identified for stewardship or sale by the Coast Guard. GSA is searching for a steward for New London Ledge Light Station, a 58-foot cubic brick lighthouse located at the entrance to the New London Harbor in Groton.
The nearby Race Rock Light, a Gothic Revival structure off Fishers Island, N.Y., will be transferred to the New London Maritime Society for stewardship at the end of June. The Maritime Society already owns Harbor Light in New London.