NORTH WILDWOOD — An estimated 40,000 people visit the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse each year.
But not so long ago, the historic site was boarded up, visited only by passing pigeons.
“When they got in there in 1982, there was a foot of pigeon droppings,” said Steve Murray, chairman of the Friends of the Hereford Lighthouse.
Fans of the lighthouse were able to get in there thanks to an effort that started 50 years ago, when then-Mayor Anthony Catanoso and his wife, Phyllis, decided to do their part to save the building.
“It was all them,” Murray said, crediting the couple with pushing forward a movement that turned the building into the city’s most recognizable landmark. “All of us came afterwards.”
Current Mayor Bill Henfey said the lighthouse has become a focal point for the city.
“It’s our heritage. It’s our culture. It’s something everyone rallies around,” Henfey said.
The lighthouse is also an important contributor to the economy, hosting festivals and participating in the statewide Lighthouse Challenge.
The Wildwoods draw an estimated 9 million visitors each year, and many head to the Central Avenue site.
“It brings a lot of people to town. No question,” Henfey said.
The couple’s work was so important that the lighthouse groups recently recognized Phyllis Catanoso for the part she played.
In his speech, Murray likened her to the keepers of the past.
“In the book ‘Ahab’s Wife,’ there is a great quote about a lighthouse keeper’s wife that can also be applied to Phyllis,” Murray wrote. “‘She, too, learned to love the service to the light and the fidelity it required.’”
In 1963, the lighthouse, once run by the Coast Guard, was turned over to the State Marine Police, eventually boarded up, and, in 1964, the light was decommissioned and replaced with an automated beacon on an iron tower.
The Catanosos decided to step in, seeking the help of Robert Roe, who in 1963 was commissioner of the New Jersey Conservation and Economic Development Department. He would later become a congressmen representing New Jersey.
The couple hoped to convince the state to turn over the building for use as an information center, a library, a senior center or any other use that would keep it open, Phyllis Catanoso recalled.
They were unsuccessful and could only watch as it was boarded up, but the effort to revive the former lighthouse continued.
“We made phone calls. We signed petitions,” Phyllis Catanoso, 89, said Tuesday. “We held spaghetti dinners and put on concerts (to raise money).”
Eventually, the stick-style Victorian structure was placed on the National Register of Historic places in 1977.
And around 1982, Phyllis Catanoso asked her friend Fred Coldren, of Cape May, to take a photo of what had become of the once pristine building.
“I asked him, ‘Will you take a picture of the lighthouse, the worst you can make it look,’ and he gave me a gorgeous picture of a rotten-looking lighthouse,” she said.
She sent the photo to the state along with a letter asking that the city be given the chance to care for the aging circa-1874 building.
The state agreed and turned over operation of the building to the city in 1982.
“We had a lease, and it said we had five years to make one room habitable. We had Tony cut the ribbon in 10 months,” she said.
Volunteers — carpenters, plumbers, electricians and more — then stepped in to fix what they could and turn the lighthouse into the icon and attraction it is today. The light was restored in 1986.
Murray doubts it could have happened without the Catanosos.
“Of course not,” he said. “In 1963, nobody was talking about preservation.”
Now, 50 years after those first attempts to save the lighthouse were made, its place in the city is assured.
Nearly $1.5 million in transportation and historic preservation grants had been used by summer 2011 to restore the lighthouse to its original appearance, down to the exterior stairs and second-floor verandah, which had been missing from the lighthouse for more than 100 years.
A series of grants from the New Jersey Historic Trust and Department of Transportation provided financing for the restoration, completed in four phases and directed by architect Hugh McCauley.
Friends of Hereford Lighthouse Inc. had its tax-exempt status automatically revoked by the IRS for failure to file a Form 990, 990-EZ, 990-N or 990-PF for three consecutive years. Murray said he became aware of the problem a month ago, and he believes it is an error. He said the group’s accountant is trying to resolve the matter.
The group’s last available Form 990 was from 2008. At that time, the organization had nearly $40,000 in assets.
The lighthouse and its carefully maintained gardens (Murray’s other passion) have won awards, including recognition “for meticulous restoration” by the Victorian Society of America. Phyllis Catanoso was honored recently for the 50 years she has poured into the building.
Phyllis Catanoso said she is still amazed at what the couple and hundreds of dedicated volunteers were able to achieve.
“I was surprised that so many volunteered to help. They were all so enthusiastic,” she said.
The couple has donated time to many causes over the years, but the lighthouse, she said, “is the one thing we’re proudest of.”
Hereford Inlet Lighthouse Timeline
March 1874: Hereford Inlet Lighthouse construction completed.
May 8: First keeper is appointed.
May 11: Lighthouse lit for the first time.
1961: Last live-in keeper is reassigned, and the light is maintained by the Coast Guard.
1963: Coast Guard begins to plan its LAMP (Lighthouse Automation & Modernization Program). Mayor Anthony Catanoso and wife, Phyllis, begin inquiries into the possibility of the city taking over the Lighthouse.
1964: Lighthouse and Coast Guard station are closed. A new state agency, the N.J. Marine Police, takes over the entire property. They maintain the station but use the lighthouse only for storage. A tall steel tower with an automatic light now serves as the lighthouse, and the old Fresnel lens is shut off and covered up.
Sept. 2, 1982: The Catanosos secure a lease between the city of North Wildwood and the state Department of Environmental Protection, the owners of the property. The Marine Police continue to occupy the old Coast Guard station.
July 1, 1983: Mayor Catanoso cuts the ribbon to officially open a new information center in the lighthouse. Phyllis Catanoso continues fundraising efforts, and volunteer workers finish the entire lighthouse over the next several years.
April 1986: Phyllis Catanoso convinces the Coast Guard to reactivate Hereford’s light. The modern tower light is removed.
1998: Preservation architect Hugh McCauley is hired to oversee the restoration of the lighthouse.
June 2011: The fourth and final phase of restoration is complete.
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