BY LINDA MONDOUX
Eight years after the Town of Fort Erie purchased the 1917 Port Abino lighthouse from the federal government, the National Historic Site once described as “Canada’s most unique and attractive aids to navigation” is getting a much-needed million-dollar facelift.
Unfortunately for heritage buffs, the adjacent keeper’s dwelling that came with the Lake Erie lighthouse in the $1 package deal back in 2003 has been sold to help pay for the repairs.
Interestingly, the new owner of the lightkeeper’s house is the head of Phoenix Restoration Inc., the company contracted by the Town of Fort Erie to carry out the lighthouse restoration project.
“The timing of the offer was very fortunate,” Ron Tripp, the town’s director of infrastructure services, told MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. However, he is quick to add that “the sale of the keeper’s dwelling and the restoration contract were completely exclusive. Neither was contingent on the other.”
Taylor Hazell Architects of Toronto will oversee the repair project, which will include restoration of all exterior concrete and steel elements, the replacement of windows and doors, and a new paint job. Fans of the lighthouse will be happy to hear that the facelift will restore the lighthouse’s west doors, which have been filled in with concrete blocks since they were damaged in a gale-force storm in November 1985.
With a low bid of $1,326,626.22 from Phoenix Restoration, Tripp, an engineer who is familiar with heritage lighthouse restoration costs, says: “We got a really good deal.”
The stately light tower, which was decommissioned in 1995, was in sad shape when the town acquired it eight years later, with the weather further adding to the deterioration since then.
Work to restore the architecturally “spectacular” lighthouse is scheduled to be completed in late September, forcing the cancellation of this season’s lighthouse tours. Volunteers with the Port Abino Lightstation Preservation Society have given guided tours of the lighthouse since 2004, with visitors arriving at the site, located at the end of a private gated road, in a canopied trolley.
'Fort Erie council sees the light!'
The preservation society, which failed to convince the town to save the keeper’s dwelling, is nevertheless elated that the lighthouse repair project is finally going ahead, hailing on its website that, at long last, “Fort Erie council sees the light!”
Just a month ago, the long-planned lighthouse restoration project appeared doomed. There were no offers on the keeper’s dwelling — which was put up for sale by the town last year for $899,000 — and a growing chorus of opposition from Fort Erie residents, who said taxpayer money should not be spent restoring a lighthouse with limited public access.
Just two hours before council on May 16 was set to vote on a resolution to cancel the lighthouse repair project due to lack of funds — which would mean turning down a grant of $425,000 set aside for the restoration by Parks Canada in 2009 — word came that an offer had finally been placed on the keeper’s dwelling, itself in need of much tender loving care. While Vincent Brannigan’s purchase offer of $450,000 was only half the original asking price, it was enough to vote down the cancellation resolution later that night and replace it with another to move forward with the facelift. Council agreed the repair bill’s $371,000 shortfall would come from reserves.
As part of the severing process to separate the house from the lighthouse, Tripp said the town protected a strip of access between Point Abino Road South and the lighthouse. While that will ensure public access to the town-owned site, that access will continue to be limited, because Point Abino Road remains private and guarded by electronic gate.
Until this year, lighthouse tours were available only every second and fourth Saturday of June, July, August and September, and only after the town negotiated an agreement with the residents’ association to open the gate for the trolley. From late June to Labour Day, you could walk or bicycle to the lighthouse with permission at the gate, but only during limited hours and only four months of the year. You can bypass the gate if you have a boat, reaching the lighthouse via Lake Erie.
The fact the lighthouse and keeper’s dwelling were built on Point Abino amid an exclusive gated cottage community of mostly wealthy Americans is the very reason both structures are the heritage treasures they are today — and a point of contention in Fort Erie.
Strategic location on Lake Erie
You can say the story of Point Abino lighthouse began in 1913, the year a vicious November gale raged through the Great Lakes, sweeping more than 200 sailors to their deaths. Among the casualties was a U.S. lightship anchored near Buffalo, N.Y., to help guide ships through the shallow, rock-filled waters at the eastern end of Lake Erie. In the disaster’s wake, officials on both sides of the border realized that a better way to keep ever-increasing shipping traffic safe in all weather was needed.
For Canada, Point Abino, a peninsula jutting out into Lake Erie between Crystal Beach to the east and Port Colborne to the west, was the perfect spot to solve its navigational problems. Land was expropriated and plans made to build a concrete lighthouse on the rocky point.
The problem, of course, was that Canada’s Department of Marine and Fisheries forgot to consult area residents, who were furious that a concrete blob would be built amid their residential enclave. The summer residents fought back by initially refusing road access to the lighthouse. To appease the residents, the government promised to build a lightstation “in keeping with the summer resorts on the point.” Ditto the lightkeeper’s house.
The result was an unusually ornate lighthouse and a two-storey keeper’s dwelling in the classic arts and crafts style. According to a Parks Canada history of the lighthouse, Point Abino is “rare among Canadian lighthouses because it deliberately employs an architectural style. Classical Revival in concept, its form and features draw inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman architecture.
“The lighthouse facade facing the shore has temple-like features. It is approached by a grand staircase leading to a platform and a formal entry porch. The porch has a pitched roof fronted by a pediment bearing the building's design date. The degree and excellence of the classical detail on the building’s base and tower are outstanding.”
While the lighthouse’s formal three-part structure — deck, tower and fog alarm building — is intact to this day, its concrete covering is crumbling and paint peeling, giving it a shabby, neglected feel. As the town’s Tripp puts it: “It’s not all that attractive right now.”
The nearby keeper’s dwelling, which is already under renovation by its new owner, was in such a neglected state that trees were growing from the eavestroughs. Built in 1921, the keeper’s house sits on a treed plot of land that is only 110 by 106.6 feet, but enjoys an unobstructed view of the lighthouse and Lake Erie, making it the perfect setting for a getaway.
Visitors to the lighthouse are also treated to spectacular lake views. Once the restoration is completed, Tripp says the National Historic Site’s concrete exterior will last another 70 years or so before the next renovation is needed. Of course, regular maintenance, such as painting and caulking, will be required to keep the lighthouse beautiful for all those tourist photos once tours resume in 2012. In the meantime, check out the Port Abino Lightstation Preservation Society
’s website, which plans to post a journal of the restoration project.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — June 2011