2009-07-30 / Front Page

Campaign to restore Jamestown treasure

By Phil Zahodiakin

The Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association (BLMA) has launched a three-pronged fundraising campaign in support of urgently needed repairs at the nation’s third-oldest lighthouse.

The association recently held the first in a series of local fundraisers which, along with furtherfl ung solicitations, is intended to raise $150,000 for the repairs most necessary to preserve the three buildings at the site. The repairs represent the first phase of a threephase endeavor to fully restore every building on the seven-acre site.

The present-day tower, erected in 1856, is the third to grace the southernmost tip of Conanicut Island since the original tower was built in 1749. The U.S. Coast Guard operates the beacon and the foghorn, both of which were automated in 1972.

Unfortunately, years of inadequate maintenance seriously compromised the integrity of the tower and adjacent buildings — particularly the keeper’s and assistant keeper’s houses. Although the square, granite tower has been re-pointed (with 1,400 feet of fresh mortar), there are many other high-priority jobs demanding attention.

Unlike the eventual Phase 2 and Phase 3 work, which will involve museum expansion and educational program enhancements, the Phase 1 work “is absolutely necessary,” BLMA President Richard Sullivan said.

“It can’t be put off,” Sullivan said. “We’ve solved the water intrusion problems, and we’re replacing the gutters on the two houses, but we have significant moisture problems and damage in the basement. We have furnaces that are old and need replacement. There’s an immediate need to replace the oil tank, which is loaded with bottom sludge. We need to finish replacing the treads in the tower. So, there’s a variety of urgent needs and significant expenses just around the corner.”

An additional Phase 1 priority “has nothing to do with the buildings, but actually has to do with the foundation of the 1749 tower,” said BLMA Board member Varoujan Karentz. The round, fieldstone foundation is perched at the edge of a grassy embankment overlooking sea-washed rocks below.

“No one knew the foundation was there until the 1938 hurricane exposed it,” Karentz said. “Radar imaging has revealed that the original 1749 tower had an octagonal base, so this is a very important piece of history. But the southwest side is crumbling, and we’ll be looking at several options during Phase 1: Doing nothing; dismantling the structure and reconstructing it; or building a revetment to protect it.”

Fortunately, a different kind of “foundation” – the Rhode Islandbased Champlin Foundations – has become an ardent supporter of the Beavertail restoration, having already provided a $227,000 grant for tower restoration. In addition, $50,000 of the $150,000 goal for the Save the Buildings campaign will be matched by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.

The first phase of the effort to reach the $150,000 goal will be a series of wine-and-cheese parties in Jamestown, said BLMA Board member Tony Antine, who is directing the campaign. The kickoff party was held recently at the home of BLMA Board member Guy Archambault, who said, “The lighthouse is near and dear to the hearts of everyone in Jamestown. It’s probably the most identifiable structure on the island, if not southern Rhode Island, so it’s extremely important that we save it.”

Antine said that “the parties will make our neighbors in various areas of the island aware of what we’re doing. We think it’s a noble task. Beavertail could have become one of those lighthouses that’s virtually impossible to restore. But we all have a passion for this landmark. We think everyone on the island should be involved with the BLMA, so we are also starting a membership drive.”

In the second phase of fundraising, the BLMA will send brochures and personal letters to local businesses via the Jamestown Chamber of Commerce. Those materials, Antine said, will be sent in mid-August. The third fundraising phase will launch on Aug. 1, when the BLMA expands its fundraising push far beyond Rhode Island.

This phase, known as the Mariner’s Capital Fund, is aimed at those who depend on the beacon for safe passage through Rhode Island Sound, Antine said. “We will be mailing about 280 brochures to people and businesses who use our waterways: Shipbuilders, tugboat operators, yacht clubs and foreign companies that send their products to [Rhode Island] ports. We will be reaching out all over the world,” he said.

Beavertail is already a destination for tourists visiting the U.S., but its profile will be significantly raised once Phases 2 and 3 are complete. As illustrated in architectural drawings displayed in the Beavertail museum, the BLMA envisions such additions as a movie theater and a lamp-light museum, along with a courtyard and an aquarium.

“Barring any unforeseen circumstances, I am optimistic that we will complete the final phases in three to five years,” Sullivan said, adding that he is also optimistic about the fundraising target. “I think the $150,000 we need to raise this year is very do-able, and I think a lot of people — once they’re aware of the urgency of our needs — will respond.”

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