Housed in one of the long-abandoned brick buildings of the former United States Lighthouse Service Depot on Staten Island, the National Lighthouse Museum is now officially open. After last Friday’s ribbon cutting, the museum’s Educational Resource Center hosted a celebratory weekend for its exhibition space that explores lighthouse history in New York City and beyond.
The museum is nearly two decades in the making. Back in 1998, Staten Island won a nationwide competition through the National Lighthouse Center and Museum Steering Committee to host the facility. At the time, the projected opening date was 2001. The September 11 attacks, the recession, Hurricane Sandy, fundraising difficulties, and organizational issues like the board disbanding in 2009 slowed its progress to a crawl, but movement didn’t stop. Now the museum, located just south of the St. George Ferry Terminal, is amid the St. George Waterfront Redevelopment Project, which includes a 630-foot Ferris wheel and millions of dollars in development.
This planned renaissance of the island’s north shore could either burgeon or shroud the museum, which is easily accessible but easy to overlook as it sits off-view down a road that stretches through the crumbling Lighthouse Depot. On a Sunday visit, attendance was at a slow, steady trickle, with a crowd of some 15 cyclists adding the biggest boost on the sunny summer afternoon. The museum’s building is a former foundry, with beautiful peaked ceilings lined with airy windows, shining light on a small space. The one-room gallery includes lighthouse artifacts like Fresnel lenses and a fog horn, a miniature lighthouse with attached cases holding even smaller lighthouses, and historic text on lighthouse history and its isolated keepers. Just outside, a pier reaches into the New York Harbor with a panoramic view that stretches across New Jersey, Manhattan, and Brooklyn.
What’s missing from the museum is the area’s turbulent past. In the late 18th century, a hospital known as “the Quarantine” was constructed, and into the 19th century it sequestered hundreds of immigrants, confining whole vessels even if just one person was sick. The infamous facility brought disease to Staten Islanders, and the tension broiled until an angry mob burned the hospital to the ground in 1858. The Lighthouse Depot moved in less than a decade late, with construction starting in the 1860s. In the 1930s, the Coast Guard took over as it absorbed all of the country’s lighthouse operation from civilian control. When the military left in the 1960s, the buildings were left empty. On the walk to the Lighthouse Museum, hulking brick buildings with gaping, broken windows are surrounded by tall grass, and a gorgeous Second Empire administration building has trees bursting from its top windows. The whole site, with its 19th-century buildings still standing, extraordinarily, is entwined with so much history that it’s worth a visit in itself.
Last year, the museum set an August 7 soft opening, and this year’s official opening date likewise coincided with National Lighthouse Day. At that time, Linda Dianto, executive director of the National Lighthouse Museum, told Hyperallergic: “We have only just begun to build a National Lighthouse Museum all lighthouse keepers would be proud of in the original location where all lighthouse operations nationwide centered in the mid-1800s.”
The museum’s upcoming program includes boat tours of area lighthouses, focusing on how the marine navigation architecture was essential to New York City’s growth. Lighthouses in New York have faced their own preservation battles, such as when the Little Red Lighthouse beneath the George Washington Bridge nearly dismantled after its decommissioning in 1948, and the Renwick Lighthouse on Roosevelt Island was left to decay after 1940, only restored decades later. The museum could be a beacon for local and national maritime history, if it secures its profile on the rapidly evolving Staten Island shore.
The National Lighthouse Museum is now open at 200 Promenade at Lighthouse Point on Staten Island.
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