What is in the future for Great Neck’s historical lighthouse?
Amanda Olsen & Julie Prisco
The Stepping Stones Lighthouse has been in poor condition and has needed repairs for many years. As an important landmark and part of Great Neck’s history, the restoration of this lighthouse is a concern for many involved parties and residents.
The Stepping Stones Lighthouse is about 1,600 yards off the coast of Kings Point and can be seen from the Throg’s Neck Bridge. The lighthouse was built in 1876 to help ships navigate the Long Island Sound waters and rocky reefs and guard the approach to New York City’s East River. Lighthouse keepers lived in the Stepping Stones Lighthouse when a person needed to manage and maintain the light. Eventually, as technology advanced, it was deemed unnecessary for someone to remain living in the lighthouse because the light could be automatic and maintained without being there in person.
The US Government enacted the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, which gives away dozens of lighthouses every year to groups willing to preserve them and turn them into public attractions like museums. According to a 2012 report from Howard Kroplick, a prior Town of North Hempstead Town Historian, the Stepping Stones Lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. The lighthouse was offered at no cost to eligible entities, including federal, state, and local agencies, non-profit corporations, and educational organizations. The Town of North Hempstead applied to take over stewardship of Stepping Stones and in 2008, the lighthouse was transferred to the Town of North Hempstead.
Since the Town of North Hempstead gained stewardship of the lighthouse 14 years ago, not much has been done to restore or maintain it. In 2014, North Hempstead partnered with the Great Neck Historical Society and the Great Neck Parks District to raise funds and awareness for the lighthouse. Since Steppingstone Park is the closest land to the lighthouse, the Park District offered staff and facilities to take people back and forth to the lighthouse.
Marc Katz, Vice President of the Great Neck Historical Society, said the town is responsible for maintaining the lighthouse, and the Park District and Historical Society have been urging the town to do something about the decay.
The Town Supervisor at the time that the lighthouse was first given to North Hempstead was Jon Kaiman, followed by Judy Bosworth. During meetings with the Historical Society and Parks District, Bosworth was in favor of restoring it. Still, nothing ever came of it, and now the lighthouse is in worse shape than before due to the wear and tear from storms and other weather conditions.
“In the 14 years [that the town has had stewardship over the lighthouse], the building has been deteriorating,” said Katz. “The outside is fairly firm, but the inside is not; plaster is falling, and it’s not holding up well in the weather.”
Katz shared that about a year ago, North Hempstead took bids to build a dock at the lighthouse so that boats could dock there and unload construction material to repair the lighthouse. This company put pilings in the ground to start a dock and got partially into this project, and the town supervising it said they needed to do a better job and stopped them from completing it.
“The footings and the foundation of a dock is all that’s there,” said Katz.
Bob Muller, President of the United States Lighthouse Society, Long Island Chapter, outlined the next steps to get started with the preservation. “The first steps are very clear and really easy: they need to finish that dock. And that’s, again, all up to the town. And we also need to stabilize that lighthouse to get it watertight.”
In recent months, the Great Neck Historical Society has had private meetings with town board members to talk about the significance of the lighthouse and the process of restoring it.
President of the Huntington Lighthouse Preservation Society, Pam Setchell, joined the Historical Society in a few meetings to discuss their work on the Hungtington Harbor Lighthouse.
“[The Huntington Harbor Lighthouse] was turned over to the town, but a non-profit organization was formed to support the lighthouse,” said Katz. “The restoration was not done through the town government but through a nonprofit. It’s less expensive to do it that way because town employees have union restrictions in what they can and cannot do.”
“[Setchell] was able to answer their questions and talk about what was done in Huntington,” said Katz. “On Labor Day Weekend, there was a concert with bands at the Huntington Lighthouse. I think I heard over a thousand boats docked in the waters around the Huntington Lighthouse to hear the music and picnic out on their boats. It was a big attraction for Huntington, and we told North Hempstead that there is no reason why the Stepping Stones Lighthouse can’t be an attraction for boaters and people as well.”
“It is really at the entrance to Long Island Sound so what we proposed is that it could be environmentally available and useful to researchers who wanna study pollution and to study the sea life in the Long Island sound,” Katz added.
Katz felt that the town boards’ Democratic majority and Republican minority favor the restoration.
The Great Neck Record spoke with Town of North Hempstead Councilmember for District Four Veronica Lurvey to discuss her feelings toward the lighthouse.
“The town has been supportive and working in tandem with the Historical Society to raise awareness and money. During COVID, many things didn’t happen, but before COVID, we hosted 5K in 2019 with the Historical Society to raise money,” said Councilmember Lurvey.
“I think [the lighthouse] is an important part of our history,” said Councilmember Lurvey. “It’s an important marker of the economic growth of the area. At a time when we’re so fractured on many different issues, uniting around what has made us into a vibrant community is important. I think it’s important that we continue to work towards the restoration.”
Town of North Hempstead Supervisor Jennifer DeSena stressed the need for a more concrete number before moving forward. “Preservation is a good thing, but you have to know the price. We don’t, and we don’t have a price. This goes back to supervisor Kaiman. When he entered into this agreement, he said that we would never use taxpayer money on it. So I’m not against preservation. I have no problem with preservation, but there has to be a price, and right now we don’t know that price.”
The federal government can retake the lighthouse if the obligations of stewardship are not upheld. Supervisor DeSena stated that this not the direction the town wants to take.
“I’m not suggesting that we want that,” said Supervisor DeSena. “This originally was supposed to be done with private money. Some sort of private-public partnership. And so, obviously, we need to have a price and then we need to see who is going to come to the table.”
When asked to estimate how long the lighthouse has before the cost of the repairs would make restoration infeasible, Muller was hesitant to answer. “Depends on what your endgame is as to how long it’s going to be. I can’t, I can’t answer. No, you could stabilize. You could get that thing stabilized in a matter of months. I don’t have any doubt about that. And then once it’s stabilized, you can take your time and rebuild, piece by piece by piece by piece.”
There is a sense of urgency when it comes to stabilization. “This lighthouse is offshore, surrounded by wind and waves. It can degrade quickly. Thankfully lighthouses during that period were well-built. So structurally, it’s not going to fall over, but it has fallen apart. The longer we wait to move on it, the worse it gets, and the more work it’s going to be to try to reverse it. It’s a lot easier to preserve something than to restore it. So what we want to do, and the first thing you do in any preservation project, is stabilize it. And stabilization just means basically put it in a situation where it’s not going to get worse.”
In early October WSA Principal Walter Sedovic conducted a site investigation of Stepping Stones Lighthouse. The report presented the condition and rating of restoration priority, deeming issues high and low priorities, and listed positive and negative observations.
The restoration of any lighthouse is expensive. There are grants and funds from fundraising events for the lighthouse, but more is needed. According to the Stepping Stones Lighthouse report, the first priority is stabilization and they have estimated that to cost $969,000.
“We’re at a point right now where I think it’s a no-brainer based on the research that’s been done,” said Councilmember Lurvey. “We have money put aside, grant funding, and it’s in the capital plan from last year. Great. I don’t know why we wouldn’t finish [the floating dock], and then all meet together and figure out how to continue through this partnership with the three different entities to put a plan in place.”
Katz and the Historical Society are in the process of planning a meeting with the Great Neck Park District and the Town of North Hempstead to discuss finishing the dock and the next steps toward stabilization.
“But there’s one line that I love in the report that the Great Neck Historical Society commissioned and read that lighthouses are inherently resilient and Stepping Stones embodies a tendency toward self-preservation,” said Councilmember Lurvey. “And when I read that, I thought, of course, it’s a lighthouse; it’s built to last. So, yes, there are issues with birds nesting and the weathering, but they’re inherently resilient. And you know what? So is Great Neck.”