Gilpin honored for Lighthouse restoration
To understand the significance of the preservation award recently bestowed on island resident Robbie Gilpin, it’s important to understand who the award is named after.
Gilpin received the Antoinette Downing Volunteer Service Award from the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission on Sunday, Oct. 21. Downing, who lived on the East Side of Providence, started her preservation efforts in the early 1930s and published a book, “Early Homes of Rhode Island” in 1937, which became the standard reference book for architects and historians about historic homes in the state. Later, Downing oversaw the preservation of hundreds of homes in the College Hill area of Providence, and she was named Chair of the Preservation Commission in 1968. During her time on the Commission, more than 15,000 homes in the state were designated as having historic significance. Downing died in 2001 at the age of 96.
Just as Downing’s work forever preserved Providence’s historic landscape, Gilpin’s work has had the same impact here.
The booklet printed for the event stated, “For nearly three decades, Rob Gilpin has trekked across the dunes to look after the historic lighthouse at the northern tip of Block Island. He joined the effort to save North Light as a way of giving back to the community. Rob’s first volunteer contributions were hands-on: monitoring conditions, boarding up windows and doors, carrying out minor repairs. He came to lead the North Light Commission, managing a $700,000 restoration project. Trained as a mason, Rob values learning from tradespeople, architects, and building consultants who have worked on site, and he chats up teachers, old-timers, children, and other visitors. Spare time? That’s when he watches over Southeast Lighthouse. Rob Gilpin’s dedication to the North Light is a shining example of volunteer service to historic preservation.”
Architect Walter Sedovic, who has a focus on restoring historic buildings and homes and is Gilpin’s friend and sometime co-worker, simply asked, “What would Sandy Point look like without the lighthouse?”
Sedovic and Gilpin met during a restoration project at the North Light almost 25 years ago. The project was to “stabilize the building for weather-related events, making sure the building was tight” and when funding from the state for a more substantial project came through, “that’s where Robbie’s passion for authenticity began to shine.”
True restoration depends on how the building interacts with the “immediate community — making sure the site represents itself genuinely — so it’s not Disney-fied or made of alternate materials,” Sedovic said. He said that Gilpin adheres to that principle.
As a general rule, lighthouses were built with the “best technologies” available at the time of the construction. The restoration and maintenance of the North Light over time means that it has been essential to “recognize the love and passion and operation, and to understand what it represented at the time it was built.”
That’s why, in one of the restorations that Sedovic took part in, Gilpin made sure the material from the original cast iron elements were used when forging new cast iron fixtures.
“The new cast iron has its original DNA intact,” Sedovic said. “The building is regenerated into itself.”
He said this is what makes Gilpin “the keeper of the North Light. He can do so many things: energy systems, lighting, color, building maintenance and management, efficiencies, historical attributes of the building, the relationship of the building to the immediate environment, and then presenting all of this to people in a way that touches them. He puts a human face on this lighthouse and on so many things that he touches. He makes them human.”
Sedovic added, “All of this comes out of his soul, as far as I’m concerned.”
“We can’t say enough about Robbie. We all feel we are a distant second to him. We’re dedicated to Robbie and his mission,” said North Light Commission Vice Chair Don Demers. Demers also stressed that the commission members wanted to make a more complete statement about Gilpin’s accomplishments for next week’s edition of the paper.
“I have worked with him for over decades. He is very intelligent, diligent, and deliberate in his workings. He is very thorough in his thinking, and, in my opinion, over-thinks things sometimes. But the North Light and the Block Island community is fortunate to have Rob, someone who gives of his time and talents without hesitation or limitation,” said Shirlyne Gobern. “He served on the Planning Board for years, as well as the Rescue Squad and continues to be a member. I am proud and honored to be his friend.”