Check this out: Three-story living space in a 19th-century beauty, privacy assured, water view on all sides. Cast-iron construction. They don't build ’em like that anymore.
Nor do they want to.
The Newport News Middleground Lighthouse is up for adoption because its owner — the U.S. Coast Guard — can’t afford the upkeep on the Victorian-era structure. It’s the only lighthouse in Virginia on the adoption list, and it has some great selling points.
It’s free to a good home. It’s lovely. It’s round. Its inside is wood-framed and its outside is deep primer red, tip to toe. It also has a down side with a weirdly negative cast on that old real estate adage:
Location, location, location.
The Middleground Lighthouse stands in the center of Hampton Roads Harbor, warning ships away from the shallow water of the Middleground Shoal. It has stood there since 1891, cautioning merchant ships traveling the James River or anchoring just offshore, guiding the Navy in and out of port.
The National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 authorizes the disposal of historic lighthouses and stations to government agencies and nonprofits. It calls for adopted lighthouses to be used as public parks or for educational, recreational, cultural or historic preservation purposes. No commercial uses. That’s OK if the public can reach them. But it presents a problem for the Middleground light.
“It’s in the middle of an active shipping channel,” said Anne Puppa, president of the U.S. Lighthouse Society’s Chesapeake Bay chapter. “Getting people out to visit it would be a challenge.”
There is no dock, no island, no landing platform out in the channel. Maintenance crews enter by boating out to a dangling metal ladder and swarming up the rungs. Rough water means waiting for the boat to rise on a swell before making a well-timed grab.
“Ease of access has not been our main concern,”' said John Walters, chief of the local Coast Guard’s waterways management section. “We have reasonably fit, athletic fellows, and they can access the light.”
The Middleground light is built on a caisson, a circular tube of cast iron sunk deep into the sands of the shoal. Water was pumped out of the tube, then sand was dug out and replaced with concrete and stones. Caissons could withstand the crushing pressure of ice floes, which toppled many screwpile lighthouses — wooden houses perched on a lattice of legs — around the Bay. The Thomas Point light is a screwpile, but it has been protected from ice over the years by tons of riprap placed around the base.
The Middleground lighthouse has withstood hurricanes, nor’easters, ice storms and the advent of GPS. In 1979, it sprang a leak in the foundation when banged by the tugboat Capt. Jim, which had lost power. Repairs were made in 1980.
Standing about five stories out of the water, the Middleground light has three floors where the keeper and assistant lived. A basement held cisterns to catch rain water, and a coal bin held fuel. No one has lived there since the light was automated in 1954.
“To take over the property, you’d have to consider that there are no utilities,'” Puppa said. “No water, no electricity. There’s nothing.”
Well, not exactly. Asbestos and lead paint may be in the Middleground lighthouse, which the government is advertising “as is” and “where is” without any guarantee or warranty.
Walters said there could be a couple of pieces of coal still out there, too. The walls, floors and ceilings are intact. But the awning over the catwalk that encircles the lighthouse has deteriorated, he said, and Coast Guard engineers are trying to figure out how much work needs to be done.
“We haven't put a lot of money into that light in many years,” Walters said. “It was built to have three or four people out there to maintain that light and keep it burning. If we were going to do it again today, we’d probably put something a lot simpler out there.”
The Coast Guard intends to keep it working. Any adoption agreement would give the agency access to the light at any time.
But an adoption also would put the cost of maintaining the lighthouse itself on someone else. Walters said he didn’t know what the Coast Guard now spends per year. But he said its budget does not include the extra money needed to maintain historic integrity, and the Middleground lighthouse does need work.
No one has calculated how much it would cost to fix up the Middleground lighthouse or to maintain it for public use.
A lot, Walters figured.
But not out of the question.
Since October 2001, when the General Services Administration began disposing of the Coast Guard’s excess property (commonly known as lighthouses), six have been adopted. Three more are pending. At least 300 will be transferred over the next eight years, according to the National Park Service.
The Middleground light is one of 13 now eligible for adoption, including two in the Chesapeake Bay. (See box at bottom of this page.) Interested parties have until March 27 to respond.
Ideally, what would work well would be a partnership of some sort for lighthouses like that, between a state and city or county and group that would be able to maintain it, Puppa said.
What if no one applies for the Middleground light?
It could be sold at auction. Then, subject to approval by historic preservation agencies, and still subject to the Coast Guards reasonably fit, athletic members coming by to maintain the red, flashing light, the Middleground lighthouse could become a commercial property.
“If you could get out there, you’d have a very unique bed and breakfast,” Puppa said. “If you've been out there on a beautiful day, blue sky and slight breeze, there's no better place to be.”
For information about lighthouses available for adoption, visit www.cr.nps.gov/maritime/nhlpa/nhlpa
Don't Mind the Water in the Basement
There are two other historic Chesapeake Bay lighthouses off Maryland that are up for adoption:
- Thomas Point Shoal Light Station off Anne Arundel County
- Craighill Channel Lower Range Front Station off Baltimore County
For information and a sample application, visit www.cr.nps.gov/maritime/nhlpa/nhlpa
The deadline to submit a letter of Interest is March 27.