November 19, 2009
The board of the National Lighthouse Museum, Staten Island, New York, disbands.
After more than a decade of struggle to bring a new national attraction to the New York City waterfront, the board of the National Lighthouse Museum (NLM), Staten Island, New York, has disbanded.
The decision was based on the difficulty of finalizing plans and museum development agreements with local governmental development agencies, a funding climate that changed drastically with the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center compounded by the current economic downturn, and dwindling prospects that the project could advance at this site. An alternative location may be sought.
The project was not without significant accomplishments, however. Government agencies spent more than $8 million to stabilize very historic structures at a former U.S. Lighthouse Service depot adjoining the Staten Island Ferry terminal, and those buildings – which were badly decayed – now will be available to the city and borough for further preservation. The NLM board also preserved and has found a new home for a former lightship. It is the hope of the NLM board that the historic buildings will be properly incorporated and interpreted in any new development on this key site.
Staten Island was chosen for a number of reasons. The ten-acre museum site was the location of the U.S. Lighthouse Depot, consisting of six historic structures dating from between 1863 and 1918, located on the waterfront of New York Harbor. Four of the structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and one is a New York City Landmark. Within sight of the location are two historic lighthouses including the Statue of Liberty. Twelve other lighthouses are within a thirty minute vehicle or boat ride from the site. The hosting organization, Harbor Lights, had prepared an impressive strategic plan. The site is located two miles off an interstate, near airports and bus terminals, and near the terminal of the Staten Island Ferry that has a nearly eighteen million a year ridership, two million of whom are tourist. Visitation projections for the site in 1998 ranged from 433,000 to over a million persons per year based on a six dollar admission charge. A total of five million dollars was pledged to the project: $1.9 from New York State, $1.9 from New York City, and $1.2 million from the Borough of Staten Island.
Since inception of the museum plan a decade ago, more than $8 million has been spent on stabilization and renovation of the historic buildings, some of which were in very poor condition. Additionally, over a million dollars has been spent to renovate the waterfront plaza and pier. The NLM board raised well over a million dollars for a business plan, three exhibit plans, educational programming, staff salaries, and operating costs (largely from private, corporate, and grant funds). The museum acquired the National Historic Landmark listed lightship LV 112 (better known as the Nantucket) to serve as a temporary museum and office for the organization. But an agreement with the city to bring the vessel to the waterfront at the site could not be reached. Meanwhile the lightship sat offsite draining valuable human and financial resources while unable to serve any museum purpose.
The NLM board reluctantly rented office space near the museum site to serve as a temporary headquarter until the lightship and/ or one of the historic buildings could be occupied. This was another financial drain on the museum. Since the museum could not bring the public to the site the museum decided to take the museum to the public. Staff purchased a small bus, painted it with attractive lighthouse images, and turned it into a traveling museum focused toward the children of the area. The Museum had suggested building a temporary museum on the plaza at the site so that it would be a museum in fact rather than a mere idea. The proposal was rebuffed by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). The result was that the Museum could not present itself to the public. Meanwhile, funding costs for the renovation of the historic buildings exceeded original estimates and worse capital funds were difficult to find.
To spur the project, NYCEDC requested proposals for development of the depot site in September 2005. Two of the historic buildings (Machine Shop [bldg 11] and Lamp Shop [bldg 10]) were designated for use by the National Lighthouse Museum.
NYCEDC selected Triangle Equities Corporation to develop the Staten Island Depot Property. Many historic preservationists including many NLM board members became concerned about the ultra modern high rise design in the proposal which if built would overshadow and crowd the historic depot property. The NY State Historic Office for Preservation submitted a National Historic Landmark nomination for the depot site - this nomination was blocked by NYCEDC. Furthermore, a fire of a suspicions nature occurred in one of the historic buildings.
Lighthouse Action and Mobilization Planners (LAMP) was formed with the purpose to save the National Lighthouse Museum and maintain the historic integrity of the historic buildings and depot site. Meanwhile, NYCEDC has yet to get approval for its development plan from the Federal Transportation Administration which owns a major portion of the property. The NLM board became frustrated and ultimately deadlocked in its attempt to move forward. It is difficult to raise funds when your capital plan is on hold and the site’s development plan is under controversy. This, coupled with the poor economic climate, has caused a standstill in progress.
Months stretched into years. NYCEDC is still waiting for approval from Federal Transportation Administration. Meanwhile the historic buildings are suffering from neglect. Much of the eight million dollars spent on stabilization and restoration needs to be redone. With dwindling funds, the last NLM paid staff person was eventually let go and lease of the “temporary” office space canceled. During this time the museum has gone through three executive directors. Unable to further properly care for the lightship Nantucket the NLM board agreed to give the ship to the newly established National Lightship Museum in Boston.
After years of frustration many members of the NLM board, including influential business persons and cultural preservationists from the area, resigned. With dwindling prospects that anything positive will soon happen at Staten Island, the remaining board members finally decided to dissolve. What is the future of a National Lighthouse Museum? At this point it is difficult to say. The American Lighthouse Coordinating Committee, which ironically was established in 1998 as an outgrowth of the National Lighthouse Museum Steering Committee, hopefully will take up this issue at its next annual meeting in October of 2010. Options could include reopening a competition for a site for a new national lighthouse museum. Many of the former NLM board members would welcome a new team from Staten Island to take on this project. The U.S. Lighthouse Depot is among the most important lighthouse sites in America - it has the potential to become a tremendously impressive and significant lighthouse museum - but that potential is buffeted by the current economy and the frustrating situation at Staten Island. At the very least it is hoped some interpretation about this historic site will be included in any future development there.
All the assets of the NLM will be turned over to the American Lighthouse Coordinating Committee.