BALTIMORE (AP) – To call it a fixer-upper would be generous. There is no running water, no heating, no electricity.
Once you get past the romance of buying a historic Chesapeake Bay lighthouse, there’s lead paint, asbestos, and toxic benzene. Vandals broke down the door and seabirds died inside. Oh, it’s about 18 feet of water inside a US Navy proving ground called the “danger zone.”
Who wants the Hooper Island lighthouse?
When the federal government auctioned off the 120-year-old lighthouse in September as a last resort, a bidding war broke out. The price jumped from $15,000 to $38,000. Then $189,000.
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“I expected no one to want it,” said Greg Krawczyk, vice president of the US Lighthouse Society’s Chesapeake chapter.
Lighthouse auction brings “absurd sum”
Five anonymous bidders wanted the rusty “spark plug,” so named for its cylinder base and 70-foot turret, three miles off the Dorchester County coast. In the end, someone paid $192,000.
“A strange Chesapeake Bay lighthouse is being sold at auction for an absurd sum,” one website scoffed.
The buyer remained a mystery until the Dorchester County clerk recorded the deed on December 27. One name is listed there: Richard Cucé of Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
One might have assumed a charitable foundation, but cucé? He runs an industrial paint shop outside of Allentown. He knows about rusty metal, but he’s not even a boater. What does a divorced father of four, who plays in a band and teaches yoga, want with a broken lighthouse 200 miles away?
The Long History of Lighthouses in America, Chesapeake Bay
First some history.
The US government built hundreds of lighthouses as navigational aids. The Sandy Hook Lighthouse in New Jersey has shone since 1764. At the beginning of the 20th century there were more than 200 of these structures in the Great Lakes alone. In the Chesapeake Bay, lighthouses marked the shipping channels and guided captains from the shallows along the east coast. Some 74 lighthouses were erected around the bay – more than 30 stand today – but advances in navigation, particularly GPS, have rendered many obsolete.
“There is still a story there that is directly related to United States maritime trade,” Krawczyk said. “If you just leave out the lighthouses, that’s an aspect that people won’t remember in 20, 30 years.”
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Congress established procedures for identifying lighthouses that are no longer needed and transferring them to local governments or non-profit conservation groups. Officials have relocated more than 80; The famous Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse went to a partnership led by the City of Annapolis. When officials can’t find a government or nonprofit to take them on, they sell lighthouses to the highest bidder.
About 70 lighthouses were auctioned for a total of more than $10 million. Three 19th-century lighthouses off the Florida Keys were sold in May for $415,000, $575,000 and $860,000. The repairs are estimated to cost millions of dollars.
“For every single one, people found it was a lot more money than they expected,” Krawczyk said.
The “Baltimore Light” is a big challenge
The glamor is fading to reality – and it’s fading fast. Annapolis attorney Ron Katz and several friends helped purchase Baltimore’s historic harbor light near the mouth of the Magothy River for $260,000.
Since 1908, the “Baltimore Light,” as it is known, has marked the fairway into the Patapsco River and the city harbor. Katz climbed the rusty ladder and found the roof leaking; no windows, only plexiglass and the door broken.
“Think about it. They’re two miles offshore, so you’ve got to get everything you need out to fix this thing,” he said. “You don’t just run to Home Depot.”
In the 16 years since purchasing the lighthouse, Katz and his friends have replaced the windows, doors, and roof. They installed solar panels and hidden jars of fresh water and a portable toilet inside. They painted and painted again.
“You know what the worst is? If you’re out there and you have that one hammer and you throw it overboard.”
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Katz can’t estimate—in fact, he doesn’t want to know—how much money he’s spent. The lighthouse has been the site of a 50th birthday celebration, a honeymoon, and even a zombie movie. It is a half hour boat ride from Annapolis. There is no cell phone signal on the north side. Who can think of a better getaway?
“People ask me all the time, ‘What are you going to do with it?’ I go out, have a cocktail and enjoy the sunset.”
Pennsylvania Contractor Thinks ‘Why Not a Lighthouse’?
Even for a believer like Katz, the Hooper Island lighthouse was intimidating. Blasted by sea winds and salt water, these landmarks require constant care. The Hooper Island Lighthouse rises in the middle of the bay – three miles from land.
“It’s so far offshore,” Katz said. “My first thought was, man, they have no idea what they’re getting into.”
52-year-old contractor Cucé (Cu-Chay) founded Blastco in eastern Pennsylvania in the mid-1990s, an industrial painting and sandblasting company. In two decades he has blasted and painted everything from train cars to roller coasters. Why no lighthouse?
“I’m looking forward to making something that’s forever rustproof,” he said.
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He followed the federal auctions last February when the trio of Florida Keys lighthouses went up for sale. The authorities offered interested parties a boat tour. Cucé flew down and boarded, eyeing his rivals suspiciously. Amidst the green seawater and coral reefs, each lighthouse stood on stilts like a rusty flamingo.
He was desperate for American Shoal Light, the last and most distant. The bid exceeded its limit of $850,000. Reluctantly he let go.
“My dad yelled at me, ‘What are you doing?’ Everyone thought I was crazy.”
Cucé felt defeated but later grateful. American Shoal was so far out to sea it startled him. Months later, in August, authorities announced another auction: Hooper Island Light.
Hooper Island Light is a Historical Wonder, Not an “Ideal Lighthouse”
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the lighthouse is notable for its guardroom and lantern atop a four-story white tower. Guards set fire to the tower on June 1, 1902, and it has served as an aid to navigation for more than a century. The solar powered light is shining today.
A Coast Guard inspection in 2019 revealed that the front door was gone. Birds slept in it. Rust speckled the tower and ate away at the cast-iron foundation. Inspectors found it to be “in fair condition, but almost poor”. A buyer would have to sign an agreement with the Navy and promise to avoid the area during weapons testing.
“It’s not like it’s the ideal lighthouse,” Krawczyk said.
Only, it was about cucé. He told himself he wouldn’t bid more than $200,000. He could have done it anyway – probably even. Who can set a budget for a dream? But he won with an anonymous bid of $192,000.
The government wants the money in 45 days. He sold a rental house, stocks, and spent part of his retirement savings to make ends meet.
“An unwanted and inhospitable lighthouse eventually sells,” reads one website.
Cucé saw his purchase mocked online. What did he just do?
“If someone tells him it’s not going to work, he’ll go and do it. That was the fire for many things in his life,” said Dominic, his eldest son.
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Now he still dreams of a charitable foundation and a marketing slogan. “Rebuild the lighthouse, rebuild the bay.” Cucé started a Facebook page with a glamor shot of the old light. “Feel rusty, might be deleted later.” He wants to invite environmental groups to monitor water quality and marine life from his deck. It is located near the edge of low-oxygen water known as the “dead zone.”
He wants to hire mermen from the three Hoopers Islands to help him with the job. His mind races with the possibilities. He sent pitches for a documentary about the renovation. How about a YouTube series? A Hollywood film? Later sunset cruises, a wedding destination, a yoga retreat. Just try it – Hooper Island Light Beer.
The important things first. Cucé had to get a boat.