STAMFORD – Repairing a lighthouse is a huge undertaking that starts with baby steps.
Gary Kalan took one this month.
He appeared before the Stamford Harbor Management Commission to ask for a certificate of permission – which he needed so he could request actual permission from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection – to bring a temporary floating dock out to the lighthouse and attach it to some pilings.
All that is just to have a place to tie up a boat and serve as a platform so workers can remove debris from the 1882 lighthouse that sits, stranded and rusting, near the entrance to Stamford Harbor.
It’s quite a feat to reach the ramp that leads to the circular staircase that has to be climbed to enter the lighthouse, Kalan said.
“It’s tricky pulling in and out on a boat – a lot of the breakwater got knocked down during (Superstorm) Sandy,” Kalan told the commission. “We need better access so we can set up a staging area and begin work.”
There will be a lot of that.
Repairs to the exterior, which will happen first, include de-rusting the cast iron face of the 60-foot-tall lighthouse, restoring the metal balcony and roof railings to their historic detail, replacing windows, and painting.
Interior repairs include updating the mechanical facilities, installing solar panels and equipment to desalinate water, and restoring room details to what they were when lightkeepers lived there 140 years ago.
It’s daunting, but it can be done – Kalan’s partner in the project, Brendan McGee of Rowayton, a shoreline neighborhood in Norwalk, is part of a group that last year finished restoring the Green’s Ledge Lighthouse off the Norwalk coast.
Kalan is a semi-retired anesthesiologist who lives in Stamford’s Dolphin Cove, beside Stamford Harbor in full view of the historic lighthouse.
Like people in waterside neighborhoods across America, Kalan has become committed to saving a lighthouse.
The Stamford lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as one of only 33 “spark plugs,” called that because of their shape, left in the country.
“It’s a unique piece of Stamford history,” Kalan told the Harbor Management Commission. “It needs to be fixed.”
The U.S. government agrees.
In 2000 Congress passed the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, which provides a way to convey federally owned lighthouses to “qualified new stewards,” though the Coast Guard retains ownership of all navigation aid systems.
In choosing stewards, the law gives priority to local and state governments and nonprofits, allowing them to acquire lighthouses, for free, through a competitive application process. If no such steward is identified, the U.S. General Services Administration may sell the lighthouse at public auction.
This year, the federal government offered 10 lighthouses for ownership, including three in Connecticut – the Lynde Point Lighthouse, better known as the Inner Lighthouse, at the entrance to the Connecticut River in Old Saybrook; the Stratford Shoal Lighthouse, also known as the Middle Ground Light, which sits far off the coast in Long Island Sound; and the Penfield Reef Lighthouse in Fairfield, about a mile from the entrance to Bridgeport’s Black Rock Harbor and accessible only by boat.
Lighthouses have been converted into vacation rentals, museums, government offices, and more, according to the GSA.
The goal of the program is to preserve the historic sites and save taxpayer money on federal real estate costs. According to the GSA, lighthouses provided “faithful service as beacons to seafarers and traders” and are symbols “of the strength and longevity of our country’s trading practices and communal spirit.”
The Stamford Harbor lighthouse, which sits on Chatham Rock, was decommissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1953. The government was going to rip it down but the citizens of Stamford rallied to save it.
After that it was owned for a time by a former Stamford mayor and then the power company, which in 1984 auctioned it off to Eryk Spektor, a New York City real estate investor who made many repairs. When he died, his son, Alex Spektor, became the owner. Kalan and McGee purchased the lighthouse from Alex Spektor in August for $500,000.
Kalan and McGee formed a nonprofit organization, Stamford Harbor Lighthouse Project, to raise money for restoration and to cover the cost of long-term maintenance and visitor education programs. They have said they will need $4.5 million.
“We’re working on fundraising. It’s moving along slowly but steadily,” Kalan said.
In two or three months they’ve raised $290,000 from people who live around Stamford Harbor and from their website, www.stamfordlighthouse.org, Kalan said. He is planning a public fundraising campaign and to seek government grants and corporate donations, he said.
“There are multiple sources,” Kalan said. “We’re confident we will be able to do this.”
He will appear on a podcast hosted by the U.S. Lighthouse Society at https://uslhs.org/podcast that will be available Nov. 26, he said.
Members of the Harbor Management Commission applauded the effort, saying the historic lighthouse has been ignored far too long. Kalan said the work, expected to take two years once fundraising is in place, will include installing a permanent dock.
Commissioner Bob Karp had a question.
“Under this permit, will you work on the breakwater?” Karp asked.
In a portent of things to come from the state, Kalan said, “I’ve been told we need a separate permit for that.”