By sea, the Montauk Lighthouse shows no sign of changing seasons. Its white light flashes every five seconds, serving steadily as a navigational aid to boaters in surrounding waters.
But by land, New York State’s very first lighthouse is touched by the same holiday magic as the rest of the Island. As autumn fades to winter, a crew strings lights along the edges and windows of the tower and its adjoining museum and keeper’s quarters.
The centuries-old sandstone construction — a hulking silhouette standing at just over 110 feet tall on the Island’s easternmost tip — is outlined in the dark by beads of yellow light.
“It really is awesome, when you drive down the circle there and then see it, popped up over the trees,” said Joe Gaviola, keeper of the lighthouse and president of the Montauk Historical Society. Gaviola, 67, lives on the grounds in the keeper's quarters.
The lit-up lighthouse, which also wears a wreath, becomes a destination for families for a short stretch of the offseason. Though the grounds are not open to the public in the winter months, visitors can drive up to the lighthouse gates to view the holiday light display through Jan. 4.
The clean lines and classic design make a complex and costly project look deceptively simple. The weather at Montauk Point tends toward the extreme. Waves crash, dousing the tower with salt water. Winds reach speeds that far surpass a strong breeze.
“We’re the only company that has ever lit it up,” said Marcus Pitts, manager of the Huntington-based company Looks Great Services. “I feel like we’re the only people crazy enough to do it.”
The Montauk Historical Society has been hiring Looks Great Services to light the lighthouse annually since 2008, with the exception of two years the novel coronavirus and other circumstances got in the way of the seasonal installation.
Pitts organizes a crew of 12 workers who use a 135-foot-tall lift to string strand and attach light bulbs many times the size of the twinkle lights hung from residential rooftops. The project takes several days and costs over $40,000, which includes installation and maintenance.
“It’s expensive because I pretty much have to buy new materials almost every year,” said Pitts, 30, of Huntington. “The wind and the salt and the water somehow figures out a way to just penetrate every crack and crevice of the materials that we put on there for the most part, and after one year they’re pretty much shot.”
He jokes: “I don’t know if you’d believe it or not, they don’t really make Christmas lights that are designed to withstand saltwater.”
Strong storms often put out the lights, in which case Pitts will send workers to make repairs.
“It needs constant work,” Pitts said.
This year, the labor-intensive installation process took place amid an ongoing tower restoration project. The team working on the restoration project and Pitts’ employees coordinated with each other to share a space large enough for just one lift.
“Everybody’s been able to play nice in the sandbox,” Pitts said.
Logistics and financial realities combined, the project presents all varieties of challenge. Work is done strategically, as high winds often create unsafe conditions for workers using the 135-foot lift. And the historical society finds the funds each year to complete the project at its own expense.
“It’s an investment in ourselves, an investment in Long Island,” Gaviola said. “We kind of have become Long Island’s Christmas ornament.”
Penny and Jerry Khan drove two hours from Westbury with their two sons to attend this year’s lighting ceremony, which Gaviola said drew an estimated 6,000 attendees.
"It was definitely up there in the category of breathtaking," said Penny Khan, who shared photos and videos of the night on Instagram. “Seeing the lighthouse come to life that way was a sight to behold; and then Santa came out and everyone started cheering — I think my husband was cheering louder than most of the kids.”
Each night since the lighting, which took place the weekend after Thanksgiving, Gaviola has watched from the keeper’s quarters as Long Islanders have driven up to see the lights and take photos.
The design, which is kept monochrome and consistent from year to year, is meant to honor the structure’s identity as a National Historic Landmark. Pitts describes the bulbs the company uses as a very durable version of a light bulb screwed into a lamp.
“From far away, they look like Christmas lights; but up close you’re like, ‘those are full regular, real light bulbs’” Pitts said.
Most visitors will not get that close, because the lighthouse and its museum are closed for the season. Drivers-by will see an illuminated structure in the East End darkness, but those approaching by boat will see only the light that gives the landmark its name.
“There’s no lights on the back side of the tower, because it is still an active federal nautical beacon,” Pitts said. “If you’re out in the water, we can’t have or don’t want any of the lights interfering with the navigation of ships.”
For those fishing or out on the water, Pitts said, the lighthouse just looks like the lighthouse.