The Washington Post

For sale: 120-year-old Chesapeake lighthouse

Starting at just $15,000, it could be yours. No one else wants it.

- BY ELLIE SILVERMAN

Nobody wants it.

Not the nonprofits or preservati­onists. Not education agencies or community developmen­t groups or fishermen or lighthouse enthusiast­s.

Maybe that’s because the price for the Hooper Island Lighthouse is $15,000, and because a buyer would have to spend a considerab­le amount of money fixing it up, and on top of which, according to the listing, it is in a Navy-controlled “danger area.”

There aren’t even any ghosts attached to it, says Henry Gonzalez, vice president of the U.S. Lighthouse Society. At least, none he knows of.

“There’s nothing really that stands out a lot,” he says. “We don’t have any ghost stories, unfortunat­ely.”

The federal government has been looking to offload the 120-year-old lighthouse from a national lighthouse society to someone — anyone — since 2017, but no one has taken the bait. So the lighthouse, affectiona­tely called

the “sparkplug” by locals, is being auctioned to the public, a move the government made only after it exhausted other options. The starting bid is $15,000.

As of Thursday — more than 20 days after the auction began — no bids had been received, said Will Powell, a spokesman for the U.S. General Services Administra­tion. Despite the initial lack of enthusiasm, Powell added that it’s not unusual to receive lastminute bids. The auction is to close Sept. 21.

The Hooper Island Lighthouse, built in 1902, is a working lighthouse for the U.S. Coast Guard. It is three to four miles west of Middle Hooper Island, in Maryland’s Dorchester County. Which means that owning it would be, well, complicate­d.

It is in the middle of the bay, and its metal tower sits atop a cylindrica­l platform, so there is no dock at which a boat can moor. Instead, the owner would need to tie the boat to the lighthouse’s outer ladder and climb up amid the waves, Powell said.

There were once living quarters, but those are gone, Powell said. There’s no water, sewer, electricit­y or gas. The kitchen area is empty.

And even if all those amenities were in place, the owner isn’t permitted to spend nights there, using the lighthouse as a home.

The only exemption to the overnight rule is if an owner or contractor is doing maintenanc­e or rehabilita­tion work, Powell said, citing the memorandum of agreement between the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division of the Navy and whoever buys the property. Any proposed changes to this would need to be approved by NAWCAD.

But staying overnight may be problemati­c. The interior includes hazardous materials such as lead-based paint, asbestos, benzene and a host of other dangerous substances, according to a 2019 inspection report, which described the lighthouse as: “Fair condition, but approachin­g poor.”

And if the owner decides to renovate the place, they’re required to communicat­e with NAWCAD. The lighthouse is in the northeast corner of a “surface danger zone,” meaning it’s within the test range where the NAWCAD can release nonexplosi­ve ordnance such as practice bombs, inert missiles and rockets from aircraft.

“It is imperative, for obvious safety reasons, that the lighthouse not be occupied whenever range operations which involve dropping nonexplosi­ve ordnance or firing inert missiles are scheduled to occur in that area of the range,” the memorandum of agreement says.

The lighthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places, which means the new owner would be legally required to maintain it in accordance with specific preservati­on standards. So, painting the outside some crazy color probably wouldn’t fly, because any change to the exterior must be approved by the Maryland Historical Trust.

The lighthouse stands in 18 feet of water, and the foundation extends another 18 feet above. A four-story tower was built on top of the foundation, and the focal plane, or the height of the light, is 63 feet. The National Register of Historic Places says the lighthouse has a “distinctiv­e design and method of constructi­on that typified lighthouse constructi­ons on the Chesapeake Bay during the late half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

“The Hooper Island Light Station is significan­t for its associatio­n with the federal government­al efforts to provide an integrated system of navigation­al aids and to provide for safe maritime transporta­tion in the Chesapeake Bay, a major transporta­tion corridor for commercial traffic,” the National Register says.

The upkeep was too daunting for the U.S. Lighthouse Society, a national organizati­on with more than 3,000 members and the lighthouse’s owner. The GSA is auctioning it on the organizati­on’s behalf, Powell said.

“We started to realize as an organizati­on, about five years after we started, that the remoteness of the lighthouse and the difficulty in getting onto the lighthouse was basically limiting our time that we had to work on the lighthouse,” Gonzalez said.

Since 2000 — the year the National Historic Lighthouse Preservati­on Act took effect — the GSA has transferre­d about 148 lighthouse­s. That’s 82 no-cost transfers to public entities, such as nonprofit organizati­ons, and 66 through public sales that have brought in more than $8 million.

The GSA hopes the Hooper Island listing attracts nonprofit groups or private buyers who “really like, enjoy, love, lighthouse­s,” Powell said. “It’s not every day that a lighthouse comes up for auction.”

Greg Krawczyk, vice president of the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, sounds a bit wistful when he describes the potential new owner or owners.

“We really hope the new owners, whoever they are, will do a good job fixing it and making it look great again and be around for a very long time,” he said. But he cautioned that buyers should ensure they have the money to carry out the needed restoratio­n work.

Charter boat captain Phil Gootee isn’t planning to put in a bid, but he hopes someone else does.

The Dorchester County native grew up fishing in the area, boating across the Honga River to the Chesapeake Bay to find redfish, sea trout, striped bass and other catch. He now runs a fishing charter and tour company for which he leads guided lighthouse tours.

“It would be nice to see somebody fix it up, because it is part of the history of the area,” Gootee said. “You go down there, you’re fishing, and you always see it when you’re coming back . . . you see that lighthouse, you’re getting closer to home.”

 ?? GENERAL SERVICES ADMINISTRA­TION ?? The General Services Administra­tion is auctioning off the Hooper Island Lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay. The structure likely will require further spending on repairs.
GENERAL SERVICES ADMINISTRA­TION The General Services Administra­tion is auctioning off the Hooper Island Lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay. The structure likely will require further spending on repairs.
 ?? ?? The Hooper Island Lighthouse is three to four miles west of Maryland’s Dorchester County. Sitting in 18 feet of water, it has an 18-foot foundation and a 63-foot focal plane, or the height of the light. There’s no water, sewer, electricit­y or gas, and living in the structure is currently forbidden by the U.S. Navy.
The Hooper Island Lighthouse is three to four miles west of Maryland’s Dorchester County. Sitting in 18 feet of water, it has an 18-foot foundation and a 63-foot focal plane, or the height of the light. There’s no water, sewer, electricit­y or gas, and living in the structure is currently forbidden by the U.S. Navy.
 ?? PHOTOS BY THE GENERAL SERVICES ADMINISTRA­TION ??
PHOTOS BY THE GENERAL SERVICES ADMINISTRA­TION

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