Restoration work at Southeast Lighthouse honored

Thu, 12/03/2020 - 5:30pm
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Block Island’s Southeast Lighthouse was among several Rhode Island landmarks to be recognized at the Rhody Awards for Historic Preservation, which was held at the Rhode Island State House in Providence on Sunday, Nov. 15.

The honor was specifically for the work that was done on the aging cast iron platform and inside steps of the lighthouse, as well as some work on the exterior. The restoration was performed by Abcore Restoration Co., which is based in Narragansett.

The annual Rhody Awards, which are presented by Preserve Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, honor individuals, organizations, and projects for their contributions to the preservation of Rhode Island’s historic places.

In its citation, the groups said:

“Block Island’s Southeast Lighthouse has stood guard along the bluffs for 145 years, in a beautiful but harsh seaside environment. By the 2010s, saltwater had taken a toll, particularly on the cast iron and masonry structural system — the restoration of which required a painstaking process of disassembly, repairing as much original material as possible, recasting damaged elements, and reassembly. Cast iron deck plates, stairs, railings, doors, and the ladder to the lantern gallery were replicated based on original drawings. Laser scanning and a 3D-printed sandcasting system provided the technology. This meticulous restoration ensures that Southeast Light will continue to stand proud for decades to come.”

“We’re honored to have the Southeast Lighthouse Tower Restoration Project recognized with this Rhody Award for Historic Preservation. Thank you to Preserve Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission. Everyone who has been a part of the tower restoration project has been phenomenal. It’s been a long journey since moving the historic Southeast Lighthouse in 1993 and many people have been instrumental along the way,” said Southeast Lighthouse Foundation President Lisa Nolan. “From long-serving Southeast Lighthouse Foundation Board members, restoration architects and contractors who have gone above and beyond, volunteers giving time at many fundraising events, donors and corporations making gifts at various phases of restoration work, government agency and private foundation grants given and visitors helping with small gifts in the donation jar each summer — each has played a part in the success of this project and in all of the work accomplished.”

Gerry Abbott, Chair of the Foundation’s Board, said, “We were very honored to receive this award. The lighthouse has been going through years and years of renovations, but the cast iron phase was one of the most daunting parts, given what happens to cast iron in this marine environment.”

He added, “A great team was put together. Hats off to Abcore owner Keith Lescarbeau. He’s amazing. He’s a purist and not daunted by challenges,” said Abbott. “Not every contractor is so experienced in that area. He’s a nice man to work with. He speaks with great authority and great affection.”

Abbott also had praise for Southeast Lighthouse Foundation President Lisa Nolan.

“Lisa has been with us almost since day one,” said Abbott. “She keeps things going, doesn’t lose her spirit or optimism. She has great social skills and we’d be nowhere without her.”

Lescarbeau said he got into historic preservation work right after he graduated from Johnson and Wales. The colleges used to have what was called the Access Plus program, which allowed students to complete their associate’s degree while still in high school. The lighthouse preservation work he does is “kind of a niche” and isn’t done by most marine construction firms, partly because most lighthouses are accessible only by water. Lescarbeau is also a licensed boat captain, which helps him get to the worksites.

While most of the time he has to get his materials on his own barge, Lescarbeau said the presence of the ferry has been essential.

“This ferry is as good as a highway, it’s as good as a bridge. It takes the logistical challenges out,” said Lescarbeau. “I tell them at Interstate all the time what a vital connection they are to the island.”

With the cast iron work and some other upgrades to the exterior of the lighthouse completed, Lescarbeau and his crew have moved indoors. They are now working on what he called “a little more regular work” that includes the installation of fire alarms, electrical work, HVAC, plaster and trim work. He said this work was “good but a little less magical than the metalwork, which was custom fabrication and creation.” It was for the cast iron work that the Lighthouse and Lescarbeau’s crew were recognized by the Preservation Society.

Nolan said there is still work to be done.

“We are not finished yet, but we are almost there. Under the continuing, careful guidance of Abcore Restoration Company, work is underway now to restore the Southeast Lighthouse keepers’ cottage. We have funding to finish half of the dwelling, which will open next summer as a museum of lighthouse history.”

Nolan said the Foundation received some more good news this week.

“We’re excited to announce that The Champlin Foundation has generously awarded the Southeast Lighthouse a grant in the amount of $194,500 to install HVAC and electrical systems throughout the building, getting us closer to our goal of restoring all interior spaces,” she said. “Thank you to everyone who has contributed to making this project a reality and this award possible.”

When asked about the Rhody Award, Lescarbeau said, “Well, you know, I always appreciate that, but my main drive is seeing the people utilize the lighthouse, people coming here from afar. When I see the shoes shuffling and the oohs and ahhs, that’s the real thrill.”