Renovation of Graves Island lighthouse inches forward
A long to-do list for feeling at home on island
GRAVES ISLAND LIGHT STATION — On a recent, crystal-clear morning, the view from atop the lighthouse stretched from Gloucester to Cohasset. A hundred feet below, harbor seals and sea birds bobbed alongside wave-splashed boulders. Off to the west, Boston’s waterfront glimmered in the late summer sunlight.
“It’s very Zen up here,” said David Waller, standing high above the outermost entrance to Boston Harbor in the lighthouse he bought at auction a year ago.
Very Zen and highly unusual, considering the 6 miles of open water standing between his lofty perch and the mainland. But could someone comfortably live out here for a weekend? A week? Longer?
Waller smiled and said he would know better a year hence just how habitable Graves Island Light Station may become, once a bathroom, shower, beds, and kitchen have been installed. Blueprints for these additions have already been drawn. “We’re figuring this out as we go, though,” he admitted, “having no previous experience with something like this.”
Few people do. Fewer still have the passion and resources that Waller, 51, a Boston businessman who lives in a converted firehouse in Malden, has brought to renovating one of the state’s iconic landmarks, aiming to covert it into equal parts family vacation home and historic preservation project. If all goes well, he may open the lighthouse to the public.
In an auction held last year by the US General Services Administration, Waller won title to the 110-year-old lighthouse with a bid of $933,000. After a couple of cursory visits last fall, he and family members spent the winter drawing up plans for an ambitious, and not inexpensive, renovation project that began this spring. Since April, crews of three to six workers have been dispatched nearly daily to work on the structure.
Waller, who founded and owns a visual effects company on Newbury Street, plans on spending in the “low six figures” by the time he is done.
It takes 25 minutes by boat from a Winthrop marina to get to Waller’s dream house. During a two-hour tour of the lighthouse, he cataloged the work already completed. The first order of business was repairing and replacing portions of the exterior masonry, to keep it watertight. The 113-foot lighthouse boasts granite walls 7 feet thick and five levels of work and living space, each 13 feet in diameter, leading upward to the glass-domed lamp room and its 360-degree view.
Inside the structure, floors and windows have been restored or replaced, mildewed tiles and rusted fixtures sandblasted clean, and fresh coats of paint applied to winding metal stairways. Outside, rocks from a crumbling breakwater have been moved back into place and an old, rotting dock shored up and rebuilt. Much of the work can be seen on a family-run website (graveslightstation.com ) and YouTube channel dedicated to Graves Light Station’s past, present, and future.
Much remains to be done, however, before anything other than camping is possible. Electricity and running water have yet to be added, for starters. Solar panels provide power for what is still a working lighthouse, operated by the US Coast Guard. But for now, anyway, work crews rely on portable generators to run their machinery. An adjacent oil house that used to hold fuel for the light has also been cleaned and repaired. However, the walkway connecting it to the lighthouse got washed away in 1991 and has not yet been replaced.
Access to the lighthouse itself has not improved much since Waller bought it, either, a challenge for the unfit (or mildly acrophobic). Reaching the front door requires two 20-foot climbs, one up a ladder suspended vertically over shallow, rock-strewn water. No vessel much bigger than a 15-foot inflatable can pull up to the landing area, making the daily influx of workers and materials an ongoing adventure, too, especially in choppy seas.
Yet Waller says his biggest surprise has not been the extent of the repair work, or the price tag attached.
“It’s been the outpouring of positive energy from the community — and willingness for contractors to actually come out and work on this,” he said, grinning. “I thought people might say, ‘Hell, I’m not working out there on this rusty old lighthouse.’ But they haven’t.”
Nor has he become entangled in a multiagency, bureaucratic fishing net, according to Waller, despite potentially having to answer to five separate government agencies. Besides the Coast Guard, which operates the lighthouse beacon, they include the Massachusetts Historical Commission (Graves Light is on the National Register of Historic Places), US Army Corps of Engineers, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, and National Park Service.
By keeping the agencies informed, he added, any objection should at least come before the work is undertaken, not after it is finished. Once the initial phase is over and the lighthouse buttoned up for the winter, Waller will present a comprehensive plan to the National Park Service for review.
The remaining work can be done piecemeal, according to Waller, as time and funds permit.
“We could have left it the way it was, and enjoyed it as a kind of rescued relic,” he said, pointing to improvements already made, like new windows. “But we’re really setting this up for another hundred years of use. And we don’t have to mow, as I always say.”
Two questions that have followed news of the lighthouse’s sale: Will the public be allowed inside, to see what’s been done with the place? And, might the day come when one could rent Graves Light Station for the weekend, say, and enjoy a unique B&B experience?
Yes and yes, says Waller. For now, anyone attempting to land on the rocky outcropping is trespassing and warned to stay clear. Once access is improved, though, open houses should become more feasible. Short-term rentals, too. “Because it’s something worth sharing,” he said, bounding between floors. “People are curious.”
Once finished, he added, “It should be as nice as a Vermont vacation house.”
Without the mowing.