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(Bloomberg) -- The Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse is a Connecticut icon. Built in 1886, it sits at the mouth of the Connecticut River, in the exclusive Fenwick section of Old Saybrook. Since 1993, its “sparkplug” design has adorned the state’s “Preserve the Sound” license plates.
But for the first 131 years of its existence, the cast-iron and brick Breakwater Light has had a reputation for hardship. Life was “cold, damp, and uncomfortable at the station for the keepers,” according to a local enthusiast site. “Going to shore for supplies in the 12-foot rowboat required a hazardous journey fighting the Connecticut River’s strong currents. A walk to shore along the half-mile-long breakwater was dangerous as well, and even impossible after ice built up on it in the winter.”
Soon, though, the lighthouse will begin a metamorphosis that’s been decades in the making. Frank Sciame, the construction magnate whose eponymous company has worked on ambitious New York City projects such as the New Museum for Contemporary Art, the High Line, and the Harvard Club, has been a co-owner of the lighthouse since 2015. This week, he solidified his control over the 49-foot tower and plans this fall to begin turning it into a guesthouse for his children and grandchildren.
“Historic structures are of real interest to me,” said Sciame, the former chairman of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. He added that he’d been looking at the lighthouse throughout the 20 years he’s spent on Fenwick, the last decade from the former estate of Katharine Hepburn, at 10 Mohegan Avenue. “When it came on the market, I had to have it.”
And now that he’s got it, he’s going to fix it up on his own, he said, as a “hobby,” with the advice of restoration experts and the aid of his family. “I’ll have the young guys help me,” he said.
First on his list is restoring the exterior, which has been through a serious beating over the course of its history. In 1938, the lighthouse barely survived a hurricane. “Everything swept away by the hurricane except the tower,” wrote its keeper at the time, Sidney Gross.
“There are a couple of cracks in the masonry and in the cast-iron shell that we will be restoring and repairing,” Sciame said, adding that he’ll source the cast iron from the same resource in Alabama he used when restoring the artist Donald Judd’s SoHo loft. “We’ll paint it, put in new windows. Make sure it’s watertight.”
Sciame intends to install a generator and solar panels, with shipbuilding as his inspiration. (At one point, he engaged the yacht designers Persak & Wurmfeld to draw up plans for the transformation.) “It’ll be totally self-sufficient,” he said.
Inside, Sciame plans to create an entrance lobby, put an owner’s stateroom on the second floor, fill the third floor with bunk beds for his grandchildren, and on the fourth floor build a salon “with a stair to a little indoor bar that connects to the wraparound 5-foot-wide walkway.” He said the design of the exterior would remain traditional, with the interior being more contemporary. “Honestly, that might change,” he acknowledged.
It might change—and it might take a while. “Finally a project without a budget or a deadline!” he crowed. “I’m not gonna rush.”
Nothing about the lighthouse’s recent history has been rushed. In 2008 the National Park Service began trying to transfer control of 12 “excess” lighthouses away from the federal government and, ideally, to nonprofit, educational, or cultural agencies. For various reasons—logistical, bureaucratic, political—this didn’t happen, and by 2015, Sciame had the chance to acquire it through a General Services Administration auction.
But a friend of his wanted it, too. “We didn’t want two guys bidding against each other, so we went partners on it,” Sciame explained. They won the auction with a $290,000 bid.
In the two years since, again due to what Sciame described as “red tape,” they haven’t done any work on the structure. Then, five months ago, Sciame’s partner put his own Fenwick property—a $10.4 million compound connected to the breakwater, and thus to the lighthouse—on the market. “Imagine the life of a Lighthouse Keeper!” read the listing.
The compound included two parcels of land, one with an 8,000-square-foot, five-bedroom house, the other a 2,643-square-foot three-bedroom. Both are colonial-style, with red-cedar shingles that have a well-aged look, even though they were built in 2006. They were available to be purchased separately, for $7.4 million and $3.5 million, or together for $10.4 million.
As it happened, it was Sciame himself who this week went into contract on the larger house, with an option on the smaller as well. Last week, he sold the Hepburn estate, which had been on the market since March.
If any of this saga has you lusting for a lighthouse of your own, well, the GSA has five up for auction right now. They may not be as iconic as Saybrook’s, but they are not as expensive either: The highest price listed is $31,000.
The Coast Guard, meanwhile, will maintain the Saybrook light, which continues to run at night, and the foghorn. “If it’s foggy, the horn will go off,” said Sciame. “I guess you’re not gonna sleep too well!”
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