LOWER TOWNSHIP — An organization known for Victorian preservation projects in Cape May made a bold move 25 years ago when it decided to go into the lighthouse business.
That decision also turned out to be a very good move for the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities: To lease and then open the Cape May Lighthouse to the public.
The 1859 beacon, at least the third lighthouse at the site, has become MAC’s most profitable and popular tourist attraction, drawing more than two million paying customers since opening to the public in May 1988.
“I would say it was one of the best things we’ve ever undertaken in so many ways. We saved and restored a landmark, and it opened up a whole new world of visitors,” said MAC Director Michael Zuckerman.
Officials with MAC first gained entry to the lighthouse in July 1987. Zuckerman recalls opening the door after it had been closed to the public for decades and immediately wondering what they had gotten into.
“How would we ever get it to the point where people could safely climb it, more or less restore the place? Some people thought it was impossible,” Zuckerman said.
It took about $2 million, much of it grant money, but the lighthouse was fully restored. This year, to celebrate the 25th anniversary, the entire outside is being refurbished again.
“We took the windows out and had them restored inside and out. We’re giving it a gentle washing,” Zuckerman said.
There was concern power washing the exterior could strip off the paint, so it was mostly done by hand, with light power washing, all done at a cost of $13,500, a lot cheaper than a new $75,000 paint job, which could come in the future.
“It looks a lot brighter,” MAC spokeswoman Susan Krysiak said.
The lighthouse not only eclipsed such Victorian attractions as the Emlen Physick Estate in Cape May, it has also opened the organization up to a whole new clientele.
“We found out there were lighthouse enthusiasts. They are as fierce and fanatical as you will ever find, in a good way,” Zuckerman said.
The lighthouse project also led indirectly to restoring the World War II artillery tower on Sunset Boulevard, which opened MAC up to a host of new programs on World War II.
“The fact that we had so much success with the lighthouse is what won over the skeptics,” Zuckerman said.
Although the lighthouse is fully restored, every year MAC does some maintenance work. The work this year was done by Eastern Coatings of Newark, Del. Zuckerman said MAC is looking for funding options for a new paint job.
The beacon was last painted in 1994, at which time its original “mortar wash” color, a sort of bone white, was restored. Up until then, everybody thought the bright white maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard, which took over for the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1939, was the original color. It was a huge job in 1994 because lead-based paint had to be removed.
MAC is also introducing a new tour of the beacon this year, the Lighthouse New Moon Climb and Trolley Tour. The organization has had full moon climbs at night, but the new moon program, set for July 8 and Aug. 2, is new. There will also be full moon climbs this year. For more information see www.capemaymac.org
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