St. Marks Lighthouse renovation could help it shine again
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — In the old days, lighthouses provided a navigational beacon. After renovations to the St. Marks Lighthouse are complete, there is hope its light will shine again.
The lighthouse’s 82-foot tall white tower juts starkly out of the salt marsh of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. The structure, built in 1842, three years before Florida became a state, is a symbol of the forgotten coast. It holds history in its ailing bones.
Damaged by moisture, termites and 175 years of sitting on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, the lighthouse is undergoing its second phase of restoration, which focuses on bringing the keeper’s house into the 21st Century.
For John Roberts, this isn’t just any restoration project.
His mother was one of eight children who lived in the lighthouse. His grandmother was born there. His grandfather, the longest serving lighthouse keeper, stood watch from 1918 to 1949.
The sprawling live oak tree near its entrance was planted by his great grandfather, who came there in the 1800s from Dry Tortuga Lighthouse just south of Key West
“It’s something we’ve always looked forward to,” he said of the renovations while standing in what would have been the keeper’s quarter’s living room. “I remember when it was a real nice place. I’m happy to see this done and I know my grandfather would be and my great grandfather.”
The project is being funded by Florida Division of Historical Resources grants to the Friends of the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, the Florida Lighthouse Association and also by numerous private donations.
Halfway through, $714,000 has been secured. Another $714,000 is needed to complete the project, said Friends acting president Tom Baird. The renovations are projected to cost about $1.5 million.
“What we’re doing today gets the main part — the tower, the lighthouse itself and the keeper’s quarters — but this whole complex needs to be restored,” Baird said. “Most of all, we want to relight the light. The whole community wants that done.”
To do that, about $40,000 is needed to build a replica of the Fresnel lens, installed in 1867, and removed in 2014 and put on display in the refuge’s visitor center.
With the floorboards ripped up, artifacts are being unearthed that could give a glimpse into the people who have lived in the lighthouse.
A newspaper clipping from the 1930s, a flour sack and numerous wooden buttons and trinkets were laid out on a window sill the morning of Dec. 1 during a tour of the project.
Those items are still being dated, said St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge Ranger Robin Will. They show the building is not the entire story to the lighthouse, the second oldest still standing in Florida. The oldest is the Amelia Island Lighthouse built in 1838.
“The people to me are the part that make this lighthouse so cool. The families, the women that were down here,” Will said. “Let’s try to imagine what it was like to be a mom raising a bunch of kids in here with minimal facilities.”
The project’s general contractor is Tallahassee-based Rippee Construction. For the company and everyone involved with the renovation, the lighthouse has an emotional connection, said president Callie Neal.
“All of the men and women on our team were born in Tallahassee. We’re local. We’ve been coming to the St. Marks Lighthouse our entire lives,” she said. “We bring our children here. We fish these waters. This project is very personal to us and we are so proud to bring together a team of contractors who care about the lighthouse as much as we do.”
Wakulla County Commission Chairman Ralph Thomas said the imagery of the lighthouse is the essence of Wakulla County. To see it shine again in the near future is an exciting prospect.
“This lighthouse is the icon for Wakulla County. I mean, if we had to boil it down to one symbol this is what represents our county,” Thomas said. “I look forward to this living on for many years after we’re gone so our children and grandchildren can enjoy what we have enjoyed our entire lives.”
Information from: Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat, http://www.tdo.com