STAMFORD – Lighthouses are loved for the beauty of their settings and the valor of their purpose – to guide and protect seafarers.
In Stamford Harbor, though, it’s the lighthouse that needs safeguarding.
The cast-iron tower on Chatham Rock, forged in Boston 140 years ago, is badly rusted. Situated near the harbor entrance two-thirds of a mile from shore, it has no approach because there is no landing.
The unique metalwork that forms the rails and canopy needs major attention. The round interior rooms, which are lined with brick, require renovation.
The lighthouse was built in 1882 to guide ships safely into a harbor known for treacherous rocks and ledges. The beacon still flashes every four seconds, directing boaters away from the breakwall, but it has dimmed.
The Stamford Harbor Lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as one of only 33 “spark plug” lighthouses, so named because of their shape, remaining in the United States.
The historic designation, however, doesn’t mean preservation.
Someone has to trigger that.
In this case, it was two people.
A coincidental email
Brendan McGee lives in the Rowayton section of Norwalk, near that city’s harbor. McGee owns Brendan’s 101, a Rowayton restaurant, and used to own a company that restored old houses. He is a member of a group that in 2022 completed a five-year restoration of the Green’s Ledge Lighthouse off the coast of Norwalk.
When the Green’s Ledge project was finished, McGee said, he began to think about Stamford.
“One night I was Google-mapping, looking for the person who lives closest to the Stamford lighthouse so I could go talk to them about saving it,” McGee said. “The closest one was Gary Kalan. The next day, I got an email from Gary Kalan. He read that I worked on the Norwalk lighthouse and said he was looking for someone to help him figure out how to restore the one in Stamford.”
It was a crazy coincidence, McGee said.
“We met cosmically,” he said. “Something brought us together.”
Kalan is a semi-retired anesthesiologist who worked at Greenwich Hospital for 35 years. He lives in Dolphin Cove, beside Stamford Harbor.
“When you’re on the water, you get attuned to what happens there,” Kalan said. “I became attached to the lighthouse. I started learning about it. I knew it would be a major undertaking, but it’s such an important part of the maritime history of Stamford that it would be tragic if it’s allowed to deteriorate. We have to save it now, while we can.”
That is the case, McGee said.
“The Stamford lighthouse is at a critical point. If maintenance is deferred any further, there can be permanent damage,” he said. “We’re catching it at the right time.”
No private playground
McGee and Kalan want to honor the lighthouse’s near-century and a half of service, from the day in 1882 when it began guiding ships in an ever-busier harbor with a red light 60 feet above the water and a fog bell. To increase visibility, the tower was raised 20 feet 16 years later.
Lightkeepers and their families lived in the tower for decades. It was automated in 1939 and, in 1953, the U.S. Coast Guard decommissioned it.
Two years later, a former Stamford mayor, Thomas Quigley, bought it for $1 to make it a historic landmark. But in 1964 ownership reverted back to the government. Then it was sold to the Hartford Electric Light Co., then the Connecticut Light and Power Co., which became Northeast Utilities, which auctioned off the lighthouse in 1984 to Eryk Spektor, a New York City real estate investor, who paid $230,000.
After Eryk Spektor died in 1998, his son, Alex Spektor, became the owner.
Alex Spektor said Thursday he’s had many offers over the years, but could not bring himself to sell the historic lighthouse, which sits on 10 underwater acres.
“My father bought the lighthouse because he always wanted to have one. He put $400,000 into it, got the breakwater permitted and built to make it safe, and put the stones around the base,” said Spektor, who now lives in Florida. “His dream was to turn it into an island, but it never happened. When he died, my family didn’t want it, and I bought it out of my father’s estate.”
Spektor said he liked his father’s idea of using the 10 acres in Long Island Sound to create an island.
“There’s a lot of good that can be done there – agriculture, oyster farming, environmental testing, a quick-response site for the Coast Guard,” Spektor said. “I thought it should be used for the public good.”
The offers he was getting were not that, Spektor said.
“Six guys were looking to own it like a clubhouse. But I didn’t want it to be somebody’s private playground,” he said.
Then he heard from Kalan and McGee.
“They share with me the concept that something here is worth preserving even beyond the lighthouse,” Spektor said.
Oysters on the rip rap
Kalan and McGee purchased the lighthouse from Spektor in August for $500,000. They formed a nonprofit organization, Stamford Harbor Lighthouse Project, and now are raising money, as McGee did for the Norwalk project.
According to their website, www.stamfordlighthouse.org, they need $4.5 million to cover the cost of the acquisition, lighthouse restoration, rehabilitation of submerged land, and starting an endowment to fund maintenance and education programs into the future.
“The goal is to restore all the detail, to make it historically accurate to the days when lighthouse keepers lived there,” Kalan said. “We have to update the mechanical facilities; it has to be self-sustaining because there’s no power or water out there. We have to use solar panels and desalinate the water. But we want it to be of interest for people to see.”
A key to the project will be the endowment fund, Kalan said.
“The lighthouse has been saved over the years. In the 1950s the government was going to decommission it and take it apart, but the citizens objected and saved it. It was in major disrepair in the 1980s when Eryk Spektor bought it and saved it using his own money,” Kalan said. “It’s because they did that that we still have the lighthouse. Now we have to make sure it doesn’t get like this again.”
The restoration should take about two years, McGee said. The plan is for the lighthouse and land to be a beacon of environmental sustainability, he said.
One way is to rethink rip rap, the rocky material placed at the foot of shoreline structures to protect from erosion. The rip rap at the bottom of the lighthouse can become an oyster reef, McGee said.
“Oysters are the only natural way to combat rising sea levels without building bulkheads. They grow out of the water and then wide,” McGee said. “Natural oyster beds work as a great sea wall that filters water, which also helps birds and fish and other wildlife. One oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day.”
His idea is to put 5 million oysters at the lighthouse site, which would filter 250 million gallons of water a day, he said.
A very magical view
“I envision it to be a test tube for oyster reef starter blocks,” McGee said. “This type of living shoreline project is what we all need to do on the Connecticut and New York coasts, instead of bulkheads, to prepare for the effects of climate change.”
That aspect of the save the lighthouse effort is already rolling, he said. The Stamford Harbor Lighthouse Project is working with SoundWaters, a Stamford nonprofit that works to protect Long Island Sound through education.
“SoundWaters wants to get into kelp farming and water quality programs,” McGee said. “We will develop programming together.”
His group is working now to establish a temporary landing at the lighthouse and plans to start restoration in the spring, he said. They already started a “quiet campaign,” fund-raising among neighborhood groups, McGee said.
“People are excited about it,” he said. “This is an iconic landmark, the mascot of Stamford Harbor. It has great ornamental detail that other lighthouses don’t have. It’s going to be magnificent, but we need all the help we can get from the community.”
McGee said the public fund-raising campaign just began at https://stamfordlighthouse.org/
Spektor said he’s happy to have found buyers who love the Stamford lighthouse as he does, because they will give the public a chance to love it, too.
“It’s an amazing feeling to get a sense of Long Island Sound and see the New York City skyline from the lighthouse,” Spektor said. “The view from the catwalk is something you don’t get from a boat. It’s extraordinary to be that high up over the Sound – very magical.”
Editor’s note: The lighthouse beacon still flashes every 4 seconds, not every 27 seconds and not every 2.7 seconds as previously written. Climbing the steps in the photos is Brendan McGee, not Gary Kalan. This story has been updated.