This eighth installment in our ongoing series on the history of the St. Augustine Lighthouse focuses on the restoration of the light station and the creation of the museum organization.
Click the links below to read previous posts in the series:
- Lighthouse History Pre-1874
- Lighthouse History 1874-1894 (Part I)
- Lighthouse History 1874-1894 (Part II)
- Lighthouse History 1894-1914
- Lighthouse History 1914-1934
- Lighthouse History 1934-1954
- Lighthouse History 1954-1974
1974 – 1994
After a 1970 fire left the Keepers’ House burned out and uninhabitable, community members began to plan for its eventual restoration. The Junior Service League (JSL) of St. Augustine, “an organization of women committed to promoting volunteerism, developing the potential of its members for volunteer participation in community affairs and demonstrating the effectiveness of trained volunteers within St. Johns County” turned their attention to the damaged and abandoned Keepers’ House in September 1980.
By March 19, 1981 the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Keepers’ House was on the National Register of Historic Places, “the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation” and “part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archaeological resources.” With the structures’ historical significance officially recognized, restoration work could begin.
On April 13, 1982, the JSL officially signed a 99-year lease for $1.00 with St. Johns County for the Keepers’ House and surrounding land not including the lighthouse. At that time, the aid-to-navigation remained the property of the federal government under U.S. Coast Guard operation.
The lease stipulated the JSL must “use the property as a community meeting, cultural and historical facility,” or the lease would automatically terminate. Moreover, the lease required the JSL to “commence reconstruction of the improvements” to the burned out Keepers’ House within five years and to have “substantially completed said improvements by ten years” or the lease would automatically terminate.
Given this ambitious timetable, the JSL got to work and, following a 1984 Historic Renewal Ceremony, began the arduous task of resurrecting the Keepers’ House. The JSL completed the restoration with the goal of reusing the structure as a museum. As such, there were several alterations made during reconstruction.
When the keepers lived on site, the house was a duplex, the two separate living quarters sharing a middle wall. To facilitate flow through the museum they added doorways in the dividing wall, providing interior access to each side of the house. The upstairs floor originally held five rooms, two bedrooms on each side and one in the middle for the 2nd Assistant Keeper. The restoration changed this space into one large room for exhibits, meetings, and museum events. Staircases that once stood in the hallways of each side of the duplex were moved to the back porch to provide access to the upstairs.
Restoration work on the Keepers’ House wrapped up in March 1988 and the Lighthouse Museum of St. Augustine opened to visitors. Despite the new museum, the lighthouse tower remained fenced off and access was restricted to special occasions. The U.S. Coast Guard still operated the lighthouse at the time so the JSL began negotiations to gain right of entry to the tower for tours.
On April 20, 1990, the Junior Service League signed a 30-year lease with the Coast Guard to allow for public access to the historic lighthouse. Responsibility for the maintenance and restoration of the tower, oil room, and keepers’ office passed to the JSL. Despite the new access, the tower required restoration and so work began on the tower. Also in need of attention was the first-order Fresnel lens, damaged by a vandal’s bullet in 1986. The shot shattered some of the 370 glass prisms that make up the impressive lens and years of rotation threatened to cause further damage.
Work began in 1991 to clean and repair the brick and metal components of the tower so it could open to the public. The JSL, with technical expertise from Coast Guard members Joe Cocking and Nick Johnston, restored the damaged lens and held a relighting ceremony and lighthouse festival in 1993.
Restoration work on the tower finished in spring of 1994 and for the first time, the entire site was open to the public. Visitors could tour the Keepers’ House and learn more about how the keepers and their families lived and worked at the lighthouse. They could also climb the lighthouse and enjoy the views afforded by the observation deck 140 feet off the ground. This new access made the light station a popular destination for the area’s many tourists and the local community.
Thanks to the local community and the Junior Service League, the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum is open to the almost 200,000 people that visit it every year. Come by and enjoy it too!
Paul Zielinski is Director of Interpretation for the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum. He received his master’s degree in Public History from the University of West Florida and joined the lighthouse family in 2011.