Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2011

Lens Returns to Fire Island Lighthouse

By Bill Bleyer


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Five restoration specialists used a block and tackle to gingerly lift a glass-prism bull’s-eye panel from New York’s Fire Island Lighthouse’s first-order Fresnel lens from a foam-padded packing crate on the ground up 15 feet into the air.

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As worker Jim Dunlap kept tension on the lifting rope, “lampist” James Woodward, a 40-year Coast Guard veteran who owns an Arizona-based lighthouse lens preservation firm, The Lighthouse Consultant LLC, slowly positioned the massive panel into the center of an opening in the lens’ brass frame. Another worker, Kurt Fosburg, who was standing inside the lens, exclaimed: “It fits!” He tightened two screws to attach the panel to the frame and everyone exhaled. “After 45 years I still shake when I do that,” Woodward said.

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The restoration contractors hired by the National Park Service were midway through the delicate two-week task of reassembling the 1858 lens in a new display building adjacent to the lighthouse.

The lens was removed from the tower in 1933 and loaned to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, where it was displayed until 2000. It returned to Long Island in 2007 and the 900 pieces packed in 21 crates were stored until a month of restoration began in order to prepare for the reassembly.

The 24 glass prism panels made by the Henry-Lepaute company of Paris were overhauled by replacing deteriorated glazing compound and applying an acrylic compound to seal the components. Transported to the construction site, they were cleaned with feather dusters and any glazing putty visible on their edges was covered with brown paint prior to installation.

The lens will be displayed in a new cedar-covered structure built above the foundation of an 1895 generator building of similar appearance. The Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society is handling the construction of the building. (Refer to “New Home for Fire Island Lens in the October, 2010 edition of Lighthouse Digest.) Contractor Kenneth Herman of Oak Beach, a former society board member, volunteered his time as manager of the $560,000 building project. Construction trade unions provided volunteer labor while 27 vendors donated materials. The building, with an arched zinc roof ,will be dedicated and opened to the public July 22.

The $360,000 restoration and reassembly of the 10-foot-tall lens that sits on a 10-foot-tall cast-iron base was overseen by Woodward, a subcontractor on the lens project. Woodward has restored more than 200 lenses, including about 20 first order Fresnel lenses and handled the dismantling of the lens at the Franklin Institute in 2000.

The lens will rotate on special occasions thanks to the new electric motor. The thousand-watt light bulb that would have provided a beam visible for 16 miles when the lens was at the top of the tower will be replaced with a low-intensity 40-watt to avoid blinding visitors.

Woodward’s company is in charge of the reassembly and most of the restoration work. International Chimney is handling the rigging work and painting of the ironwork. Atlanta-based MACTEC is the overall contractor hired by the National Park Service for the lens restoration project.

Five of the prisms were cracked all the way through and they have been repaired the same way that the U.S. Lighthouse Service did in the early 1900s: with brass patches wrapped around the break on top of putty in what is called a “lampist’s repair.”

Even after the restoration, many chips on the outer edges of the glass lens prisms remain - intentionally. “That’s the history of the lens,” Woodward said of the damage. “That’s part of the story. You wouldn’t want to repair it from a historic preservation point of view.”

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2011 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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