Renovations starting at lighthouse keeper’s house

Hundreds of beach houses will be renovated for this summer, as happens every summer. But there’s one home renovation near Fenwick Island that will benefit everyone.

Next door to the Fenwick Island Lighthouse, the Delaware Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs will eventually open the 1882 keeper’s house to the public. Exterior renovations begin on May 7 to restore its historical character while eventually transforming the house into an interpretive center.

The Fenwick Island Lighthouse holds a special role as a local icon and historic site. It helped sailors navigate around the treacherous shoals in the Atlantic Ocean. The 87-foot lighthouse is located just outside town limits, mere feet from the Maryland border and a centuries-old Transpeninsular Line stone marker.

First illuminated in 1859, the Fenwick Island Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1978 by the U.S. Coast Guard. But in the 1850s, the lighthouse was a lonely tower set among the Fenwick sands. Always on alert, lighthouse staff lived right next door.

Now, in the new millennium, Delaware state agencies have rolled up their sleeves to keep the site relevant for another century or two.

“We expect the abatement contractor for lead paint to be onsite starting May 7,” said Lynn Riley, a division planning manager. Workers will also safely remove any asbestos. “This is very typical for historical properties.”

Construction should continue daily throughout summer, weather permitting.

“The entire team is very excited, from the contractor to the architects to the Friends organization,” Riley said. “Everyone is very excited about the project.”

One goal of the project is minimal impact to the public. No weekend work is anticipated. The lighthouse site will remain open to visitors despite the construction zone around the keeper’s house.

Moreover, the electric-powered beacon will continue to shine through the classic Fresnel lens, as it has since 1982.

“The rehabilitation project will involve the removal of modern additions; construction of a new porch and new wooden steps and landings; replacement of existing windows; repair of miscellaneous wood trim and wood-shingle siding; exterior painting; and the re-laying of the existing brick sidewalk,” officials said.

The first phase of the work is all State funded, at $382,500. The Delaware Division of Facilities Management will serve as project managers, with architects Bernarden and general contractor Kent Construction.

In the future, the State will install landscaping or pathways to create a more cohesive campus between the two buildings. They’ll also add restrooms and handicapped access to the keeper’s house.

In all, the renovations are expected to take three to five years. The timeframe depends on State funding.

The lighthouse and the keepers

The State of Delaware has long owned the lighthouse and more recently acquired the newer keeper’s house, just next-door to the west. Today, like most coastal real estate, the two tiny lots only combine make a fifth of an acre, surrounded by beach houses, hotels, condos and summertime trailers at 146th Street.

In fact, the tower is surrounded on both sides with houses of historical significance. The eastern house was built first — a cramped quarters for the keeper, the assistant keeper and both their families. It is still privately owned by a family.

Tired of overcrowding in 1882, the keeper’s family moved into the western house, which was recently obtained by the State and now undergoes renovations.

“It was designed in Victorian Gothic style, with gable- and rafter-end decoration typical of much coastal-area government construction in the last quarter of the 19th century,” officials said.

“It’s a very unique coastal resource. There are very few lighthouses that remain standing, and that … it is still lit,” Riley said. “We’ve had a long maritime history in Delaware, and people come from all over. There are lighthouse enthusiasts all over the country and all over the world. They come to photograph the site, to learn about it, and we’re very excited to be a partner in that. … We just hope they will see it and come and enjoy it.”

Friends keep site open to public

Due to a grassroots effort, the lighthouse was transferred to the State of Delaware in 1981, which leases the property for the New Friends of the Fenwick Island Lighthouse to oversee on-site tourism.

Thanks to the nonprofit group, the public can visit the lighthouse site and view historic artifacts in the summertime. The volunteers have done the legwork to fundraise, landscape, welcome visitors and do other day-to-day work. But space is so limited that the volunteers display historic artifacts in the outdoors.

Although visitors can enter the lighthouse, they are not permitted to climb the narrow tower. There are no current plans to offer that option.

“It’s a pretty small place,” Riley said of the keeper’s house, “but we do hope that the Friends will have a place to put displays and information and objects. They have a lot of wonderful stories about the history of lighthouse keepers. Many of the Friends are descendants of the keepers,” Riley said. “We’re very excited to be working with the New Friends of the Fenwick Island Lighthouse … to make this an even better public site than it already is.”

The National Park Service must also approve changes to the lighthouse, listed since 1979 on the National Register of Historic Places.

Learn more about Delaware’s historic sites and programs at

The nonprofit Friends group shares history and visitor hours online at

By Laura Walter
Staff Reporter