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Nov 30, 2011 1:45 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Landmark Status Recommended For Montauk Lighthouse; Beacon Change Turned Down

Dec 6, 2011 3:30 PM

First, the good news: the Montauk Lighthouse moved a step closer to being designated a national historic landmark on Thursday, thanks to a recommendation by the landmarks committee of the National Park System Advisory Board that that status be granted.

“It was a nice Christmas president,” said Richard F. White Jr. who chairs the Montauk Lighthouse Committee, which began the application process about six years ago.

The landmarks committee’s recommendation now goes to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar for his approval, which could come within the next few weeks, according to the office of United States Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York, who had urged the committee to make a positive recommendation.

Mr. White cautioned, however, that “we don’t consider it a done deal” until the interior secretary makes his decision.

Commissioned by George Washington in 1792 and completed in 1796, the Montauk Lighthouse is the oldest beacon in New York State and was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.

According to Mr. White, national historic landmark status is difficult to earn, as a case must be made that the candidate is unique in its historical importance. The process can be “intimidating,” he said, recalling when a local contingent traveled to Washington, D.C., in May to make a presentation before the National Park System Advisory Board and to answer “some really tough questions” from scholars well versed in history.

One member of the contingent, historic preservation consultant Robert Hefner of East Hampton, made the case that the lighthouse was unique in having been the major seacoast beacon for the most important trade route to the United States, from Britain and France to New York City, in the period from 1797 to 1870.

The advisory board voted unanimously to nominate the lighthouse as a candidate for national landmark status, a designation so far granted to only eight places in Suffolk County, and the application moved to the landmarks committee.

“The committee’s decision brings Montauk Point Lighthouse one step closer to taking its rightful place as one of our national historic landmarks,” a statement from Senator Gillibrand said after the landmarks committee’s decision last Thursday.

“It will give us a little more prestige,” Mr. White said on Monday.

Now for the bad news, at least from the perspective of the Montauk Historical Society, which owns the lighthouse: its request to replace the lens refracting the beacon’s light was turned down last month by the U.S. Coast Guard, which is charged with ensuring safe navigation, including at Montauk Light.

“A beautiful shaft of light” with a “majestic sweep” used to be produced by a Fresnel lens installed in the lighthouse in 1903, according to Mr. White. The Coast Guard removed it in 1987 and replaced it with a fully automated Vega light that Mr. White said “is now 10 times dimmer.”

The historical society had hoped to replace the current light with a replica of the 3.5-order Fresnel lens, which is now enshrined in all its huge, prismatic glory in the lighthouse museum. To satisfy current standards, the replica would be made of polycarbonate instead of glass.

“The light signature would be identical,” Mr. White said.

The Coast Guard concluded, however, that the safety of “the maritime public” would be better served by the Vega light.

“From whale oil lamps in the 18th century, to a first-order Fresnel lens on a 14-foot taller tower in the 19th century, to the 3.5-order bivalve Fresnel early in the 20th century, to the current Vega rotating beacon, Montauk Point Light has seen significant lighting technology upgrades over the course of its impressive history,” wrote Rear Admiral D.A. Neptun to Elizabeth White, the Montauk Historical Society chairwoman, on November 3.

“The Coast Guard’s mandate to provide increasingly modern, reliable and efficient signals for mariners can be balanced with the Montauk Historical Society’s mission of making historical lighting equipment available for public display, but it precludes the installation of outdated or nonstandard optics in federal aids.”

An appeal on behalf of the Fresnel is in the works, according to Mr. White.

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A no brainer-of course its a historical landmark and national treasure.
By EastEnd68 (888), Westhampton on Nov 30, 11 3:18 PM
Very cool! :)
By Robert I Ross (250), Hampton Bays on Dec 3, 11 7:53 AM
Of course, it is a treasure, so many Islanders make a pilgrimage out to Montauk at least once in their life.
By summertime (589), summerfield fl on Dec 3, 11 10:47 AM
Agree, should be a no brainer. I would also like to see some of the military history also preserved. Most people have very little knowledge of how large a part Montauk played in the training and protection provided by the military.
By Spinny OHO (94), Speonk on Dec 3, 11 9:24 PM