The Mercury News

NEW SHINE ON AN OLD GUARD

Future looks radiant for 161-year-old structure that predates infamous prison

- By Denis Cuff dcuff@bayareanew­sgroup.com

SAN FRANCISCO — Perched on Alcatraz Island, California’s first-ever lighthouse has beamed welcomes and a sense of direction for 161 years to gold miners, clipper ships, oil tankers, nuclear aircraft carriers and cruise ships.

Now a campaign to rehabilita­te and eventually open the working lighthouse to the public for the first time is being planned.

The National Park Service, Coast Guard, the United States Lighthouse Society and the Lands’ End clothing

company jointly announced Monday the first step toward restoring the lighthouse, often overlooked in the shadow of the famous federal penitentia­ry around it.

Lighthouse backers commission­ed a $25,000 architectu­ral study to determine the scope and cost of the work — laying the groundwork for a major fundraisin­g campaign to pay for it.

History buffs say securing the future of the lighthouse will enhance public appreciati­on of the island where the beacon was built long before the prison known as “The Rock.”

“Most people only know of Alcatraz because of the prison, but it has a rich maritime and lighthouse service history,” said Jeff Gales, executive director of the United States Lighthouse Society. “This lighthouse has stood guard while California’s developmen­t happened right around it.”

The lighthouse opened in 1854 and beamed on as the rest of the island transition­ed from Army fort to federal penitentia­ry to national park.

The extent of necessary structural repairs is unknown, as is the cost of repairing the damage caused by a fire during an occupation of the island by Native American activists in 1970. That fire burned the lighthouse keeper’s house to the ground.

Seattle architect Gene Grulich will prepare a detailed historical structure report on the condition and rehabilita­tion needs of the 95-foot-tall reinforced concrete structure.

Rehabilita­tion is the first priority, but the lighthouse society says it hopes to see the lighthouse opened to public visitors at some time.

Now the lighthouse is closed except for special guided tours, like Monday’s tour, when a small group of media and dignitarie­s squeezed up the spiral staircase leading to the small lantern room overlookin­g San Francisco Bay.

Walking the 123 steep, narrow stairs to the top can leave visitors a little queasy. The views, however, of ships, bridges, pelicans, San Francisco skyscraper­s and the vast expanse of blue bay waters are breathtaki­ng.

Providing public access to such a cramped part of the popular park would be a challenge, but the National Park Service is willing to look at options, said Marcus Koenen, the Alcatraz site supervisor with the park service.

“We’re discussing it,” he said. “The tight space is the challenge. Look, we have 5,000 people coming to the island just today.”

Lands’ End is footing the bill for the architectu­ral study.

“We want to save the beacon and make sure it is safe and available for future generation­s,” said Federica Marchionni, Lands’ End chief executive officer. “This is the oldest lighthouse in California. It is the most iconic lighthouse.”

Lands’ End, she said, was founded by Gary Comer, a sailor and world traveler who appreciate­d how lighthouse­s captured people’s imaginatio­n as a symbol of safe harbor.

The light from the Alcatraz lighthouse flashes every 5 seconds and can be seen 20 nautical miles away.

Despite modern ship navigators’ reliance on GPS and other technology, the automated lighthouse beam from Alcatraz is an important aid to mariners, said Coast Guard Capt. Bill Drelling.

“There is no substitute for a visual marker,” Drelling said, “especially on a foggy day.”

 ?? KARL MONDON/STAFF PHOTOS ?? Architect Gene Grulich visits the top of the 161-year-old Alcatraz lighthouse Monday in San Francisco. He will prepare an architectu­ral study determinin­g the scope and cost of the rehabilita­tion of California’s first lighthouse.
KARL MONDON/STAFF PHOTOS Architect Gene Grulich visits the top of the 161-year-old Alcatraz lighthouse Monday in San Francisco. He will prepare an architectu­ral study determinin­g the scope and cost of the rehabilita­tion of California’s first lighthouse.
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 ?? KARL MONDON/STAFF ?? Jeff Gales, executive director of the United States Lighthouse Society, snaps a selfie while atop the 161-year-old Alcatraz lighthouse on Monday.
KARL MONDON/STAFF Jeff Gales, executive director of the United States Lighthouse Society, snaps a selfie while atop the 161-year-old Alcatraz lighthouse on Monday.
 ?? UNITED STATES LIGHTHOUSE SOCIETY ?? Alcatraz as seen in 1910. In 1909, the lighthouse was rebuilt on a new location away from the new military prison.
UNITED STATES LIGHTHOUSE SOCIETY Alcatraz as seen in 1910. In 1909, the lighthouse was rebuilt on a new location away from the new military prison.

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