How to Renovate a Lighthouse

Four years after purchasing the Fairport Harbor Lighthouse in Mentor, Ohio, owner Sheila Consaul considers it livable —although it would be nice to have running water, electricity, trash pick-up and, perhaps, pizza delivery. 
At the ripe old age of 90, the Fairport Harbor West Breakwater Lighthouse has never looked better. There’s no magic potion that keeps her looking so young, though. It comes down to good, old-fashioned blood, sweat and tears. 

It’s a labor of love for Sheila Consaul, a communications strategist for a government contracting company in Washington, D.C., who purchased the Ohio lighthouse at auction in 2011. Since then, she’s spent her spare time and money remodeling the neglected structure, slowly converting it into the summer home of her dreams. 

“It’s getting there,” she says. “It’s still a work in progress.”

Making the dream a reality is anything but easy when your vacation property sits at the far end of an uneven break wall surrounded by Lake Erie, with no electricity and running water.

Since we last checked in with Consaul (see the July/August 2013 issue of Lake Erie Living), she’s tackled some of the challenges head on with the help of countless skilled craftspeople, students and volunteers, including area business owners and curious onlookers who get a tour of the lighthouse in exchange for carrying a bag of trash to the dumpster at the Mentor Headlands Beach parking lot. There are new windows that keep water out and let air in, the floors have been refinished, and the living quarters are livable.

“A lot of people asked me how I intended to redo it,” she says. “Since I didn’t have any historic interior pictures to work with, I worked with how I found it.”

The walls on the first floor had been covered with plaster, but over time sections of the material had disintegrated, leaving a large section on the north wall with exposed bricks. “People pay a lot of money to get this effect,” Consaul says. “I call it ‘Lighthouse Faux Italian Plaster.’”

When it came to the furniture she envisioned for the space, she bought a comfortable sectional, and scoured eBay and Craigslist for antique pieces with a mix of Shaker and Art Deco. 

“To a degree, I wanted it to look as if there were a bunch of people from the Coast Guard sitting around for a meal in 1920,” she says.

The original kitchen on the second floor was long gone, so she headed to Home Depot to design a ground-floor custom kitchen with distressed Shaker-style cabinets and bead board. 

“They even honored the free delivery,” says Consaul, who arranged for everything from cabinetry to furnishings to be transported by a local boat captain and hoisted onto the lighthouse’s 10-foot-high platform or through a window in the upper stories of the building. 

“I have pictures of flying dishwashers and cabinets,” she laughs. “But the Home Depot guys didn’t miss a beat. They jumped off the boat, came up and put everything in. They had a great time.”

To the casual observer, everything looks to be in order now, but there are still some important things missing. Running water and electricity are the priorities. For now, Consaul carries drinking water with her, uses a composting toilet set up in the basement and gets limited power from a generator that runs lights and small appliances, but not the oven, refrigerator, washer or dryer. In other words, staying there right now is a lot like glamping, or glamorous camping.

Plans are in the works to remedy the remaining hurdles. Consaul hopes to rewire the lighthouse this summer and restore electricity to the lighthouse. Getting water flowing will take a little more time and effort. “I’m right on the lake,” says Consaul, “so, it’s ironic that getting fresh water and plumbing is so challenging.”

Students from The Ohio State University Ecological Engineering Society, under the supervision of professor Jay Martin, are working on a self-contained water treatment system that can pump lake water into the building, remove the impurities, store it and then clean the used water before returning it to the lake.

“It’s been an issue because the lake is under the jurisdiction of the state and the EPA, so it gets more complicated,” says Consaul. “After the students made a presentation to the county in April, it now looks like we have to go back to relying on a combination of rainwater and stored water. We anticipated having to store some water, but the new plan is more storage-dependent. Hopefully, we will get through the bureaucracy.”

While the student team is optimistic that the final system design will be complete by the end of summer, implementation could take up to a year, says Alex Spektor, the student leader of the project team, which includes five other students.

“There is no set timeline,” says Spektor. “We would like to get it done as soon as we can, because it’s an amazing place and we would like it to be able to be used.”

No one feels that way more than Consaul.

“Every time I set a timeline for completion, it doesn’t work,” she says. “For now, I’m pretty happy with it. I can stay here, but not for long unless I go without a shower. I have furniture and dishes. I have the Weber grill. I can have people over.”

After a hard day’s work, Consaul acknowledges it would be nice to have someone deliver food to the lighthouse once in awhile. With all the time she’ll have when the work on her vacation paradise is done, perhaps the next big project she’ll tackle will be to launch an Über-like app for boats. 

“It would be a great job,” she says. “They could charge whatever they want. It would be worth it.”