Dave Waller doesn’t own a boat, but he now owns an offshore lighthouse that requires one to get there. Go figure.
“I realize that’s unusual,” Waller said with a laugh, five days after being notified that he had won the bidding for Graves Island Light Station, a 110-year-old lighthouse located at the mouth of Boston Harbor, with a record-setting bid of $933,888.
Waller, co-owner of a video special-effects company headquartered on Newbury Street, was having breakfast with his family at their Malden home last Saturday when he logged on to the US General Services Administration website, where the auction was being conducted.
Since June, the back-and-forth bidding for the lighthouse had escalated to nearly $1 million, each new bid resetting the 24-hour clock — often with only minutes to spare — during which bids could be submitted. On Saturday, the clock ran out, finally, leaving Waller the winner.
“There were no high-fives, just silence,” he recalled of the moment when the virtual gavel banged down. Not long after, the GSA sent him an e-mail making it official. Waller’s bid eclipsed the previous high of $381,000 paid for a GSA-auctioned lighthouse.
No high-fives, maybe. But for Waller, who collects old signs and other artifacts the way other hobbyists collect model railroads or vintage cars, the lighthouse acquisition is both an extension of his passion for preservation and a restoration project unlike any he’s taken on before.
“I love the way antique objects tell stories with all this rich folklore,” said Waller when asked why he would buy a lighthouse with no plumbing, no utilities, no easy way to get there, and not much to do once inside but enjoy the view. The Graves Island station “is a great book waiting to be opened,” he added, although he plans to proceed slowly with any renovations.
‘I thought he was joking at first.’ —Lynn Waller, explaining her reaction to her husband’s plan to bid on the lighthouse
It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1987 and is one of 163 lighthouses scattered along the New England coastline.
Waller, 50, and his wife, Lynn, a graphic designer, also intend to open Graves Island to the public, possibly as an offshore inn, so all can appreciate its unique beauty and location. The first order of business, he said, will be consulting with the National Park Service and other stakeholders to determine what can be done to preserve its historical integrity while making it weather-tight and livable, at least for short periods of time.
Under the terms of the sale, the US Coast Guard will be responsible for maintaining the lighthouse as a working navigational aid. All proceeds from the GSA sale go to a Coast Guard program that maintains and restores working lighthouses.
At present, access to the Graves Island facility is difficult at best. At high tide, most of the rocky ledge supporting it is underwater. When exposed, the ledge is seaweed-covered and slippery underfoot. To get inside requires climbing a 40-foot ladder. Waller has only been inside once, in late July, during a GSA-guided site visit. However, once was enough, it seems.
“My ‘aha’ moment was climbing to the watch level and looking out,” he said. “It makes you feel really small and very humble.”
The sweeping view of the shoreline, stretching from Marblehead to Hull, plus the “big sky” visible overhead, convinced him to stay in the bidding, says Waller, who spent part of Thursday diving for lobsters near Graves Island. An avid scuba diver, he may look into cultivating oyster beds on or near the island, too, he said.
Beyond any commercial potential the lighthouse holds, Waller says his deep New England family roots — they date back to the 1630s — and interest in maritime history played major roles in his desire to keep bidding, even at levels far beyond what he originally thought he might pay.
Born in Lynn, he used to sail by Graves Island with his father, who worked for General Electric and who did in fact own a boat. After graduating from Emerson College, Waller went on to cofound Brickyard VFX, a visual special-effects company with offices in Boston and Santa Monica, Calif.
Twenty-two years ago, Dave and Lynn Waller bought at auction an abandoned Malden firehouse, which they converted into a three-story home. The house has since become the repository for much of Waller’s private collection, including an old Dedham diner kept in a converted truck bay. Among his other prizes are signs from Jimmy’s Harborside Restaurant, The Naked Eye, and Exeter Street Theater. Some items have been bought at auction, others through classified ads or word of mouth.
“I don’t like to hoard things,” said Waller, who loans many of his cherished objects to museums, restaurants, and other establishments, for fees as low as $1 per year.
When the GSA announced its auction of the Graves Island lighthouse in June, a friend sent Waller a text message urging him to bid on it. Waller dug into the lighthouse’s history. The more he learned, the more excited he was about potentially owning it.
His initial bid of $111,000 was merely the beginning of what turned into a long and sometimes painful process. Slow at first, the bidding heated up in midsummer, quickly vaulting past the $500,000 mark by late July. Last month the original field of 10 bidders gradually narrowed to three, then two, each bid requiring a minimum increase of $5,000.
While he’s hardly in the super-wealthy class, according to Waller, he was willing to keep topping the bidding, fearing his main foe was a hedge fund manager, or some such deep-pocketed individual, for whom no price was too steep. All bidding was conducted anonymously, and the other finalist has not yet been identified.
Throughout the auction, the Wallers viewed the lighthouse not as a collector’s trophy but as a potential vacation home, albeit a highly unusual one, or an investment that could pay off handsomely someday, though not necessarily in dollars.
“I thought he was joking at first,” Lynn Waller admitted, looking back on the auction. “I don’t even like boats. Then I realized he was quite serious. To me, it was like when we bought our firehouse — although we got that quite reasonably.”
Waller remembers his wife saying, “We’ve had that firehouse for 22 years. We need a new adventure.” And while his kids — aged 17, 15, and 11 — think their dad’s a little crazy, he noted, “They’re the perfect age for scraping paint.”