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Graves Island lighthouse not your average fixer-upper

The Graves Island Light Station near the entrance to Boston Harbor has no plumbing or utility services, and getting to the front door requires a climb on a 40-foot ladder.

DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF/FILE

The Graves Island Light Station near the entrance to Boston Harbor has no plumbing or utility services, and getting to the front door requires a climb on a 40-foot ladder.

For sale by owner: Antique five-story structure built in 1903. Ten-acre property, majestic water views with private dock. Two bedrooms, kitchen/library potential, no baths. Needs work.

So a conventional real estate listing might look for a piece of property for sale on Graves Island, 9 miles off the Massachusetts coast. When the owner is the US government, however, and the property is a 110-year-old working lighthouse anchored to a rocky, wave-battered ledge near the entrance to Boston Harbor, that hardly does the offering justice.

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For that matter, simply getting to, and into, the lighthouse, which has been listed on the National Registry of Historic Places since 1987, presents a formidable challenge for anyone looking to buy what would be a truly novel vacation home.

One of 163 lighthouses located along the New England coast, the Graves Island Light Station went on the auction block in June, under terms set by the National Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. Bidding started at $25,000. It is expected to close next week, said Barbara Salfity, branch chief of the General Services Administration, which is conducting the sale.

The high bid currently stands at $101,000. All bids must be cash only.

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Under terms of the sale, the US Coast Guard will retain responsibility for maintaining the lighthouse as a navigation aid, keeping its light and foghorn in working order while being allowed access to the property whenever it wants. The new owner, meanwhile, will be permitted, subject to review by state historic preservation officials, to renovate and use the 113-foot tall cylindrical structure as he or she sees fit.

The GSA is fielding bids at www.gsaauctions.gov and will set a 24-hour window for anyone to submit a higher bid once the closing date is set.

So far, says Salfity, bidders have expressed interest in historic properties in general, in maritime history, and in the signature architecture of lighthouses such as this one. However, none of the bidders answered a request to speak to the Globe about their plans for the lighthouse if they assume ownership.

The 2000 law stipulates that lighthouses no longer wanted or needed by the federal government, typically because they cost too much to staff, are first offered for free to nonprofit organizations, municipalities, or other government agencies willing to assume stewardship. If none steps forward, the properties are then auctioned off to private bidders.

Since 2000, a dozen New England lighthouses have gone on the block, according to the GSA. While these lighthouses may no longer be needed as in decades or centuries past, they nonetheless hold “sentimental and tangible value as historic properties” while continuing to function as navigational aids, says GSA public affairs officer Patrick Sclafani. Nationwide, historic lighthouses such as Graves Island have sold for anywhere between $25,000 and $381,000. On average, the GSA has been selling off 7 to 15 lighthouses per year.

Two others listed for sale are Saybrook Breakwater Light, off Old Saybrook, Conn., with a top bid currently at $64,000, and Orient Point Lighthouse, off the coast of Long Island near Southold, N.Y. Its high bid stands at $10,000 and counting.

Last week, the GSA escorted six current or potential bidders, nine people in all, to the Graves Island lighthouse for a closer look inside and out.

Arriving at low tide in two boatloads, each visitor had to climb a 40-foot ladder to reach the lighthouse doorway. A safety harness was provided to prevent any mishaps. Normally, says Salfity, a ladder attached to the dock adjoining the lighthouse would shorten the climb and make access easier. However, that ladder has been washed away and needs repair, as does much of the lighthouse’s interior.

Unoccupied since the 1970s, when the lighthouse became fully automated, the granite-block structure contains two foundation-level compartments once used to store water and fuel. The second story housed its engine room, with a kitchen and library area occupying the third story and lightkeepers’ bedrooms on the fourth and fifth levels. There is also a separate oil-house structure on the property.

For all its quirky charms, the Graves Island facility is not everyone’s notion of a quaint fixer-upper. For starters, it has no running water, sanitation facilities, or utility services, other than a solar power source, installed in 2001, that runs its light and foghorn. Offered strictly on an as-is basis, the lighthouse itself may also contain lead paint, asbestos, and PCBs, according to the prospectus on the GSA website.

Nevertheless, Jeremy D’Entremont, an author, photographer, and authority on New England lighthouses, calls the Graves Island Light Station “one of my favorites, a great lighthouse in the tradition of classic, wave-swept lighthouses” that are a cherished part of New England seacoast history and culture.

D’Entremont visited the lighthouse in 2001, transported there by Coast Guard helicopter. The interior, though spartan, was in surprisingly good shape, he recalls.

Since the 2000 law passed, lighthouses that reach the auction block tend to be “the more remote ones, the ones more difficult to access,” he notes.

For all his enthusiasm about preserving these lighthouses, in both body and spirit, D’Entremont also has reservations about the auction process.

“To me, the whole idea behind [the legislation] is to find the best steward for these properties,” he says, “and to auction them to the highest bidder can run counter to that. You’re rolling the dice there, with no guarantees that the property will be well-cared for.”

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.
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