$1 lighthouse could cost city $2M thanks to red tape

Restoring structure acquired for a buck will cost much more in part because of strings attached to deal

The Port Washington lighthouse. Press file photo
Ozaukee Press staff

Repainting and repairing Port Washington’s iconic lighthouse seems like it would be a straightforward task, but in reality it’s a much more complicated job, a group of residents gathered at City Hall last week were told.

“Painting the lighthouse may seem like painting a house, but it’s more complicated than that,” Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven said.

The lighthouse, which the city acquired in 2018 for $1, is regulated by numerous state and federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, Coast Guard, Department of Interior, U.S. Park Service and State Historical Preservation office, Joseph Clarke of Legacy Architecture, which is working to develop a preservation plan and specifications for the city, said.

Not only does each have their own regulations regarding the lighthouse, permission must be obtained by them throughout the process, he said.

And because the work is a preservation project rather than a restoration, care must be taken to ensure the lighthouse remains as original as possible, Clarke said.

“The goal is to preserve what’s there, maintain as much of the character as possible,” he said, noting that means evaluating every piece of the structure individually. “Wherever we can, they would like us to use what we can and save it.”

But the complexity of the process adds to the cost.

Because the lighthouse is covered in lead paint, the city needs to prevent any chips of paint from falling into the water, Clarke said.

But the city can’t just tent the 63-feet-tall structure while doing the work, he said, because the lighthouse is a navigational aid and the light needs to be exposed all the time.

And while it may seem easy to remove all the paint, prime the lighthouse and then paint it, it can’t be done that way, Clarke said. That’s because the moisture in the air will start corroding the metal structure quickly — so quickly that the structure can’t be left unpainted even overnight or it will begin to corrode and the paint will peel in a short time.

“It can only be done in small pieces,” Clarke said.

Workers need to wear double ear protection, he said, because the foghorn can be triggered at any point by a boater. They are working with the Coast Guard to see if they can turn the horn off if weather is clear, but they don’t know if they’ll get permission to do that.

And before any of that work can be done, the rusting rebar, some of which is exposed to the elements, and structural supports in the concrete need to be replaced, he said.

Inside the lighthouse, there are plaster walls and ceilings, and these likely contain asbestos, Clarke said, so the city needs to decide how to deal with that.

It also needs to ensure there’s adequate ventilation inside the lighthouse to prevent deterioration, he said, and the hatch atop the structure needs to be repaired.

“It’s incredibly important to keep moisture out of this building,” Clarke said.

While many of the porthole windows are damaged, there are some that are in nice shape, Clarke said. If the glass isn’t broken, they shouldn’t be replaced, just refurbished, he said.

But the new windows shouldn’t be etched or treated to give them an older appearance to match the historic ones, Clarke said. Instead, the older windows can be polished to give them a clearer appearance to match the new ones.

Add to that the fact that getting equipment out to the lighthouse, which is about a half-mile from shore, is complicated by the fact there’s no easy access. The breakwater leading to the lighthouse is too narrow to get the needed equipment to the structure and low lake levels and exposed armor stone make it difficult to get it out via boats.

“Each of these complicated problems means more cost,” Clarke said.

All that is part of the reason the city has estimated the cost of restoring the lighthouse at between $1 million and $2 million. Clarke said he hopes to have a better cost estimate for the city by mid-October, as the budget process is in progress, with bids for the work due late this year.

That would pave the way for the city to get the work done next year, if it’s included in the budget.

That may be a question.  On Tuesday, as aldermen attended a budget work session, City Administrator Tony Brown said he tentatively penciled in $2 million in borrowing for the lighthouse project, in addition to $4 million for other city projects.

The city can keep that in or cut other projects to keep the borrowing at $4 million, he said.

“I would be hard pressed to put the lighthouse in front of street repairs” and other needed items, Ald. Mike Gasper said.

He said he is especially irked because the federal government owned the structure for years, didn’t maintain it, then divested itself of the lighthouse and is now requiring the city to repair it.

Mayor Ted Neitzke, who was not at Tuesday’s session, has said his goal is to get the lighthouse, which stands as a symbol of the community, repaired next year, noting the deteriorating condition has sparked complaints from residents for many years.

Clarke said last week that since the city has begun to plan repairs, the Park Service has realized it didn’t authorize some work done by the city in the past.

“They issued a slap on the wrist,” he said, and told the city that anything else it does must be reviewed by the agency.

The three  items the agency took issue with are attaching down lights to illuminate the lighthouse at night, attaching a life ring and painting the base of the structure to cover graffiti, Clarke said.

Clarke told the group that the lighthouse, which was built in 1935, was one of eight structures built from the same plans between 1935 and 1950.

That prompted one woman to ask if the city can learn from any preservation steps taken for these other lighthouses. That’s something Legacy will look at, Clarke said.


Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


User login