Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
If you’re escaping to a coastal getaway this Memorial Day weekend—or any time this summer—chances are you’ll spot a lighthouse or two along the shore. And, if you’re even luckier, it’ll be fully functional.
While modern navigation technology has rendered lighthouses somewhat obsolete, lighthouses were a vital means of navigating tricky landscapes and harbors for thousands of years. The first examples can be traced back to antiquity; one of the seven wonders of the ancient world is the Lighthouse of Alexandria, built in 280 BCE.
Modern lighthouses emerged in England in the early 18th century, as engineers tried to successfully navigate around the notoriously dangerous Eddystone Rocks off of England’s southwestern tip.
They showed up at the same time in America when Boston Light—the first lighthouse stateside—opened on the Massachusetts shoreline in 1716. Other lighthouses were then built up and down the Eastern Seaboard—and they continued to spread throughout the states.
Made of everything from wood to brick to masonry—they did have to stand up to seaside weather, after all—the complex of a tower and a cottage nearby is called a “light station.” The term “lighthouse” technically refers only to the tower, which is topped by the “lantern room,” a glassed-in space where the light is actually maintained. Beneath the lantern room is a service room to house supplies.
Lighthouses that are still in use today have automatic electric lights, but everything from oil to gas to even wood was once used to maintain the glow.
Lighthouse keepers had the grueling task of maintaining the light and ensuring an even and constant presence of light, which included, according to an 1852 set of directions for lighthouse keepers, “[trimming] the wicks every four hours, or oftener if necessary, and clean glass chimneys fitted on; and special care must be taken to cut the tops of the wicks exactly even, to produce a flame of uniform shape, free from smoky points.”
It’s no wonder that when electricity came into play, it became harder and harder to find keepers for the lighthouses, which are subject to harsh conditions and more often than not located on remote sections of shoreline.
In 2000, The National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act was passed, allowing people to essentially acquire lighthouses listed on the National Register of Historic Places for free if the lighthouse in question was restored and opened to the public.
Unused lighthouses are sometimes put up for auction, but if you’re more of a traditionalist you can also find them on the market. Here are a few up for grabs today.
Squaw Island, Michigan ($1.5 million)
Situated on a 69-acre private island six miles north of Beaver Island, Michigan, this brick lighthouse comes fully equipped with separate sailor's quarters, in addition to the octagonal lighthouse tower and accompanying brick house.
The interiors have certainly seen better days, though they retain the original doors, floors, and wood paneling from the 1892 construction. This lighthouse has been on the market for a while (at least five years), and has seen its price slashed from $3.2M to $1.5M.
While yes, you do get a private island out of the deal, there’s no working heat or electricity, and the interiors need a full restoration, which won’t come cheap.
Hilton, New York (5 bedrooms, 5 bathrooms, $1.5 million)
Another example of a lighthouse that doesn’t lie along an ocean’s shoreline—this home is perched on the edge of Lake Ontario.
Originally built in 1896, this light station fell into disrepair in the mid 1950s before being sold by the U.S. government to a family that began to restore it. The tower has changed shape significantly over time, but it was re-lit in 1996 after additional restoration work and clearance by the Coast Guard.
Architectural styles for lighthouses vary alongside their date of construction. This lighthouse and cottage are largely in keeping with the Victorian period. You’ll have to look past the late-20th century renovations, which stripped some rooms of their original details.
If you’re one for delicate, ornate wood screens and fireplaces decorated like wedding cakes—a style aligned with Queen Anne Victorian architecture of the late 19th century—then you’ll be at home here.
And since this estate is privately held, a new buyer doesn’t have an obligation to open the grounds up to the public like lighthouses acquired under the Preservation Act.
Escanaba, Michigan (Current bid: $15,000)
While this lighthouse—which sits on Green Bay in Lake Michigan—was completed in 1936, there has been some type of lighthouse structure on this site since the late 19th century.
The octagonal lighthouse, which has its keeper’s quarters built into its base, sports a striking red-and-white stripe on its exterior, an eye-catching device to help the lighthouse stand out to sailors during the day.
The lighthouse was in use for just shy of 50 years when, in 1979, it was taken out of service. Then, in 2015, the Coast Guard deemed the lighthouse in excess to its needs and offered it up for auction last summer under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act.
The lighthouse failed to sell and is still up for grabs today. Interested? Here’s all the info you need.