You spent $1m on a lighthouse. Now what?
On a recent Friday morning, Dave and Lynn Waller met at a marina in East Boston and climbed aboard the Miss Cuddy, a 25-foot vessel that was once a US Coast Guard rapid response boat. The Wallers bought the boat at a government auction, and they use it to travel back and forth from Graves Light, the lighthouse they own in Boston Harbor.
With Dave behind the wheel, and Lynn sitting beside him, they sped along the glassy waters of Boston Harbor, past Logan Airport, Spectacle Island, and Long Island.
“I call Miss Cuddy my pickup truck,” said Dave Waller, 53.
The Wallers live in Malden and venture out to their lighthouse as many as three or four times a week, depending on their work schedules, family obligations (they have three children, ages 14, 18, and 20), and weather conditions.
Graves Light was built in 1903 on a rocky ledge surrounded by water. It’s about nine miles from the pier in East Boston, and on a good day (if the seas are calm) it takes Waller 25 minutes to get there. There’s no place to dock Miss Cuddy, so they use a little inflatable boat to reach the rocky ledge.
The Wallers have owned Graves Light since 2013. Dave bought it at auction and, after a lengthy bidding war, he got it for a record-setting price of $933,888.
The Wallers originally wanted to renovate the lighthouse and turn it into a bed and breakfast. But getting out there “turned out to be difficult most days, and downright dangerous others,” said Waller, so they scrapped that plan. They also realized refurbishing an aging lighthouse is no easy task — and an extremely costly one, at that.
The renovations were taking much longer than they hoped, and they didn’t have the financial resources to keep pace. But then something changed.
“An interesting person came into view — doubly interesting because he turned out to be the individual we were bidding against the whole time,” said Waller.
He and his wife first heard from the anonymous bidder in 2013, soon after that auction ended, when they received an unexpected FedEx delivery. Inside was a message from a man named Bobby Sager, asking to buy the lighthouse from them.
Sager is a philanthropist who made his fortune by turning a small Boston-based jewelry firm into a lucrative global financial services business.
Waller told Sager they weren’t interested in selling Graves Light, but told him another lighthouse — Minot’s Ledge Light — off the coast of Scituate would be going up for auction. Sager ended up purchasing Minot in 2014 for $222,000.
Besides being lighthouse owners, the Wallers found they had something else in common with Sager: a Malden connection. The Wallers live in Malden, which is Sager’s hometown. (Interestingly enough, a Malden man named Royal Luther oversaw the construction of Graves Light more than a century ago.)
The Wallers officially partnered with Sager in June 2016. Sager offered to provide financial resources to speed up the restoration work at Graves Light, and they agreed to share the lighthouse.
“We were bidding against each other and ended up being roommates,” said Sager.
Sager is impressed with Waller’s knowledge of the inner workings of the lighthouse and what it needs.
“Dave Waller is a genius” at “being able to restore these,” Sager said. “He’s a man on a mission.”
Sager and his son went out to Graves around Labor Day, and a storm rolled in during their visit, leaving them stranded. They couldn’t leave until the storm had passed.
Sager said they looked at each other and thought, “What have we gotten ourselves into?” But it turned out to be a bonding experience for father and son. The trip ended up being longer than they had planned, but they felt safe inside the lighthouse and it was a memorable adventure.
Sager has since acquired two other lighthouses — Gray’s Reef Light on Lake Michigan and Boon Island Light Station, off the southern coast of Maine. But he insists he’s not a collector.
He believes lighthouses should be preserved and that they can do more than warn ships away from rocky shores. Sager says they’re “small spaces where big conversations can happen.”
“I think these lighthouses are really a special opportunity,” he added. To be somewhere where you’re completely surrounded by water is unique, and “It’s a good place for people to listen . . . and to have powerful conversations.”
(Although Graves Light is privately owned, the Coast Guard still operates and maintains the lighthouse’s beacon and fog signal as aids to navigation.)
Meanwhile, the Wallers continue to push the restoration project forward. They’ve put on fresh coats of primer and paint, restored and polished the oak flooring, replaced windows and portions of the exterior masonry. Furnishing the lighthouse and its round rooms has brought its own challenges. Carpenters had to brainstorm how to construct cabinets that fit snugly against the curved walls.
But the project is coming along. The keeper’s suite now has a curved oak desk and a curved Murphy’s bed that flips up against the wall. On the underside is an antique nautical chart of Massachusetts Bay.
They brought in a potbelly stove, and turned an antique smokestack salvaged from an old yacht into a 12 foot-tall chimney. There’s even electricity now.
The Wallers have spent much time documenting the history of the lighthouse, and they continue to post photos and updates on their website, www.graveslightstation.com.
Although it’s too dangerous to open Graves Light to the public, they want to share as much of it as possible with the public through their website and YouTube channel.
Waller’s goal was to not only restore the lighthouse but to also “unravel all the mysteries around it.”
GRAVES LIGHT HISTORY
■ In August 1914, The Boston Globe reported that four men — two from the L Street Brownies swim club — swam 12 miles from Charlestown Bridge to Graves Light. Two weeks later, 19-year-old Rose Pitonof of Dorchester completed the same swim, and became the first woman to accomplish the feat.
■ Graves Light was one of the locations featured in the 1948 movie “Portrait of Jennie.” Future first lady Nancy Reagan had a minor, uncredited role in the film.
■ The lighthouse gets its name from Graves Ledge, which is named after Thomas Graves, vice admiral of John Winthrop’s fleet and an early trader in Colonial Massachusetts.
■ The lighthouse tower was made out of granite blocks that came from Rockport. It stands 113 feet tall.
■ When lightkeepers manned the lighthouse, a water cistern was located in the base of the tower. The first floor was used as storage space; the second story was the engine room, which contained the fog signal equipment; the third story was the kitchen; and the keepers’ beds and living space were on the fourth and fifth floors.