Local preservationists are calling on the Town of North Hempstead to restore the nearly 150-year-old Stepping Stones Lighthouse, which they fear will meet a grim fate if officials don’t take action to reverse its decay.
“Forces of nature could care less about finances, politics and everything else,” said Robert Lincoln, chairman of a Great Neck Historical Society committee overseeing the lighthouse’s restoration. “Every storm that comes through eats away at the lighthouse.”
The Stepping Stones Lighthouse, which sits about a mile north of Kings Point, was built in 1876 to warn mariners of a shoal and rocks that extend into Long Island Sound, according to the historical society. In 1944, the Victorian Second Empire-style structure was modernized and has remained a point of navigation to boaters in the area. Stepping Stones, which was added in 2005 to the National Register of Historic Places, is among more than 20 lighthouses on Long Island.
The lighthouse is missing red bricks and has a broken wooden door, a torn fence, widening gaps in the stone foundation and a buildup of rust, with vegetation growing in some cracks. An unfinished dock, which officials said is needed to fully access the lighthouse for restoration, sits feet away from a ladder to access the structure. In 2017, the town hired engineers to work on a restoration project and begin designing the dock, but officials said major work has been postponed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those who want to preserve the structure said the lighthouse is facing “demolition by neglect.”
“Lighthouses are indicative of the social and economic growth of the area, so that lighthouse tells us a lot about the importance of the area and being a gateway into New York City,” said Robert Muller, president of the Long Island chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society and a member of the Stepping Stones Lighthouse Preservation Committee.
As part of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, the town took ownership of the structure in 2008. Four years later, the National Park Service threatened to take it back because the town failed to maintain it and did not make it available to the public as the preservation act requires. The town then partnered with the Great Neck Park District and Great Neck Historical Society to restore the lighthouse.
In 2014, North Hempstead officials estimated that the restoration project could cost between $4 million and $8 million. With the current high rate of inflation and increased deterioration of the structure, Supervisor Jennifer DeSena — who was elected last November — said after visiting the site in July, “It is simply impossible to accurately estimate exactly how much this restoration process would cost, and authorizing this spending would be a reckless and irresponsible use of taxpayer money.”
“Unfortunately, this site visit showed that the deterioration of the lighthouse is so extensive, it has fallen into a state of decrepit, dilapidated disrepair, so much so that the lighthouse beacon is currently physically inaccessible,” DeSena said in a statement. “I believe that now is the time to sit down with all interested parties and make the tough choices that the situation necessitates as we look for the best way to move forward that would not necessitate the town expending millions of dollars of taxpayer resources for a project that was always supposed to utilize ‘minimal’ town money.”
Muller and Lincoln said the committee and other organizations want to collaborate with the town to raise funds to restore the lighthouse.
“A lost lighthouse is lost history,” Muller said.
North Hempstead Town has been awarded the following grants to fund lighthouse repairs:
2017 — National Maritime Heritage Grant: $165,000
2017 — NYS Earmark – Assemb. Anthony D’Urso: $100,000
2021 — NYS Earmark – Assemb. D’Urso: $100,000
The Great Neck Park District received grant funding:
2016 — NYS Earmark, then-Sen. Jack Martins: $100,000
Additionally, the Great Neck Historical Society has raised $125,000
Money borrowed for this project, about half of which has not been spent:
2016 — $50,000
2016 — $300,000
2017 — $275,000
2018 — $270,801
SOURCE: North Hempstead Town