You can’t get much more waterfront than this: GSA lighthouse auction shines
Post filed in: GSA Administrator | Historic Preservation | Lighthouses | Public Buildings Service | Surplus Property
When Sheila Consaul walked into her waterfront summer home for the first time – bought sight unseen online for $71,010 – her eyes adjusted to the boarded up windows, broken glass, and years of teenage parties.
And she was thrilled.
Consaul had been outbid twice for the property, a 75-year-old lighthouse on the shores of Lake Erie in Fairport Harbor, Ohio, before she gained ownership in 2011.
“I was looking for a summer home and I wanted something historic, something interesting, something near the water,” Consaul says. “I heard that GSA was auctioning off lighthouses. And I thought, ‘Well, they're gonna be near the water, and they're gonna be historic.’”
You can’t get much more waterfront than Fairport Harbor: The 42-feet-tall lighthouse sits at the edge of a rocky promontory, jutting out into the mouth of the Grand River that flows into Lake Erie. The lighthouse was featured on the Today Show August 7 – National Lighthouse Day -- as a success story of the lighthouse disposal program.
The program was young when Consaul started her search, only active since Congress had passed the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 (NHLPA). The law was geared toward preserving federally owned historic light stations and involved a partnership among the U.S. Coast Guard; National Park Service, GSA and new owners, known as grantees.
The NHLPA “recognizes the cultural, recreational, and educational value associated with historic light stations by allowing these national treasures to be transferred at no cost to federal agencies, state and local governments, nonprofit corporations, educational and community development organizations.” If none of those entities shows interest, private citizens may bid via a GSA auction.
Consaul’s project – called Fairport Harbor West because of a smaller and older lighthouse on the east side of the harbor – was built in Buffalo, New York, on the east end of Lake Erie, and brought to the harbor site by boat. It’s made of steel, concrete and brick with metal sheathing. The navigation and illumination functions still exist, and are maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who hold keys to the property to gain access when necessary.
There was electricity once, but the underwater cable was cut at some point, so Consaul uses a gasoline-powered generator for her quarters. She draws water from a cistern in the basement where she collects rainwater that goes through a careful purification process. Gray water from showers and sinks must be put through the same purification before released into Lake Erie. Hers is a compost toilet.
She opens the lighthouse on Memorial Day weekend, and closes for the season in October. The lighthouse has no central heating, and operating a generator is neither inexpensive nor easy to feed. Gas has to be purchased at a station and hand delivered.
The lighthouses can be had for auction prices well below market value for waterfront properties, but the process takes preparation and attention. In 2013, a lighthouse in Boston Harbor – where waterfront condos are listed for some millions to $38 million – sold after bidding that started in June at $26,000 and ended in August at $933,888. Since then, another lighthouse near Boston went for more than $200,000, and the owners of each lighthouse have become friends.
On the same day the Today Show visited Consaul, GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan toured the Cleveland Harbor West Pierhead Light, which is part of the auctions taking place during the 2023 Lighthouse Season.
"What a view," Carnahan said, looking out from the top of the lighthouse at the lake and the downtown waterfront, including Cleveland Browns Stadium and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. "What a great place to be in the summer.”
“In a short time,” Carnahan continued, “this historic building could be in the hands of private ownership and off the balance sheet of taxpayers. We’re delighted at GSA to shepherd these historic properties year after year."
The process starts when the U.S. Coast Guard informs GSA of lighthouse buildings the federal government no longer needs. GSA works with the Coast Guard and the National Park Service to determine which lighthouses will be available. Notices are issued to public entities and non-profit corporations. Interested parties have 60 days to submit letters to GSA expressing interest in applying for the lighthouses.
To date, more than 150 lighthouses have been sold or transferred out of federal ownership, with 81 transferred at no cost to eligible entities, and 70 sold by auction to the public, generating about $10 million. Last count, there were fewer than 50 lighthouses available for interested parties.
Interested parties should visit the GSA lighthouse webpage where lighthouses and their details are listed. GSA can help arrange site visits. Public bodies and non-profit corporations get priority to acquire a historic light station at no cost through a competitive application process the NPS administers. If no public or non-profit entity is approved to receive the historic light station, GSA may auction the property to the public.
“We have all these old lighthouses, and we’re not using them for people to live in anymore,” Consaul said. “It’s hard work, but it’s great. It’s great.”