How to Buy a Lighthouse
Sheila Consaul always wanted an interesting vacation home on the water. So when she found a lighthouse up for auction in Mentor, Ohio, she knew she wanted it. What she didn’t know was how challenging it would be to buy it, renovate it and make it livable.
Beach-goers and boaters in Mentor, Ohio, must have thought they were seeing a ghost. The Fairport Harbor West Breakwater Lighthouse had been empty since 1948 and, suddenly, there was a shadowy figure moving around inside.
The “ghost” turned out to be Sheila Consaul, who was quickly dubbed “The Lighthouse Lady” after buying the structure through a government auction in 2011 and launching a project to completely refurbish it by the end of this year.
In her search, she ran across an auction of surplus government property, including lighthouses that had been declared excess property by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Consaul looked at several different lighthouses before she came across Fairport Harbor West Breakwater Light, which is still actively used for navigation. She was enamored of the classic, four-square light and keeper’s residence with the white walls and red roof.
As part of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, excess properties are first offered at no cost to eligible government agencies or non-profit groups. But if there are no takers, the real estate is sold by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) to the highest bidder at auction — as long as the buyer can meet certain conditions that vary from property to property.
In this case, that meant that Consaul needed to have insurance on the property and lease the platform on which the lighthouse sits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. She also needed to agree to allow the Coast Guard in on occasion to check on its navigation equipment.
After years of neglect, the Fairport Harbor West Breakwater Lighthouse first was offered to the general public through an online auction in 2009. Consaul bid, but didn’t make the highest offer. When the winning bidder couldn’t meet the additional requirements, the property went up for auction again and history repeated itself. In 2010, the highest bidder was found to be in default.
The rules for the next auction included a provision to give the second-highest bidder a chance to buy the property if the winning bidder couldn’t close the deal.
The third time was the charm for Consaul. Again, the highest bidder backed out and, in 2011, she was offered the lighthouse for her final bid of $71,010. She didn’t hesitate with her answer. “I said, ‘Yes, I will take it.’”
The Real Work Begins
Anyone who has done restoration work knows that fixer-uppers have their quirks, but ownership of the Fairport Harbor West Breakwater Lighthouse came with a set of challenges apart from the run-down condition in which Consaul found it. The first challenge was access, not just for her, but for the steady stream of contractors and their machinery.
There are two ways to reach the lighthouse, and neither involves a paved driveway to its front door. One option is to trudge a mile through the sand from the Headlands Beach parking lot. It’s a nice walk when you’re not carrying heavy loads, but impractical for getting work done on the property. Instead, Consaul opted to buy a “pick-up boat” to go back and forth from the lighthouse by way of the Grand River — although, without a dock, getting on the lighthouse platform can be tricky depending on the weather conditions.
“Due to the expense, I’m not building a full dock any time in the foreseeable future,” Consaul says. “And any permanent structure would need approval from the Army Corps of Engineers. For now, I’m looking into other ways to successfully provide a way for passengers to disembark from the water.”
If access wasn’t isolating enough, the lighthouse will have to be self-reliant — there’s currently no electricity, no running water, no toilet or sewage treatment system. “I’ve researched so many options. Wind and solar power are currently too expensive to use in a summer home,” Consaul says, “and not being connected to the grid in order sell excess power back doesn’t make either of those systems practical.”
In the meantime, she’ll use a generator to provide juice for lights and other electronics she uses at the lighthouse. With that problem tackled, she has one more major consideration to take on.
“Ironically one of the biggest challenges is getting fresh water and plumbing into the lighthouse,” says Consaul. “Whatever plumbing was here is long gone. So now I have to come up with a system to bring in water, treat it to make sure that it is to the level that is necessary to use in a home, and then treat it again as gray water before it is returned to the lake.”
For now, she plans to install one composting toilet that uses little or no water and produces very little waste, but she’s hoping to install a water treatment system she saw used on an episode of “This Old House.” A membrane bioreactor system has the potential to filter used water and return it back to the lake cleaner than it came in. If the system proves to be a practical and affordable option, she hopes to get approval from the State of Ohio and have it installed it by the end of summer.
Maybe then Consaul can start picking out finishes, furniture and décor.
Saving a Lake Erie Legacy
Consaul may not be from Ohio, but she has made a lot of friends here very quickly thanks to the work she’s doing on the lighthouse. “The place was in shambles,” says Bob Ulas, executive director of the Lake County Visitors Bureau, “and there was a risk of it being torn down. To find an individual to take on a challenge that no one else could is incredible. We’re grateful.”
Consaul also is well-liked for her willingness to share her experience with the community. Throughout the year, she offers open houses for people interested in getting a peek inside the lighthouse and always has something planned around the anniversary of when the beacon was first lit on June 9, 1925.
“It’s amazing to see and talk to people who have an interest in this lighthouse,” says Consaul. “I’m honored to be able to restore it and give the community an opportunity to see it. I take great pride and responsibility in being the steward of this historic property. It’s a gem of northeast Ohio and Lake County.”
How to bid on a lighthouse and other unusual properties
Ninety-six lighthouses have transferred, either to non-profit and historic preservation organizations or individuals, since the National Historic Lighthouse Restoration Preservation Act passed in 2000.
This year, seven lighthouses are available to non-profit groups through an extensive application process, which can be found at propertydisposal.gsa.gov/lighthouseprogram
Meanwhile, 57 properties throughout the country were not taken by any non-profits and are on the auction block, including residential, commercial and industrial properties, 10 parcels of land, two lighthouses and one former Coast Guard station. Bids for these properties can be placed at gsaauctions.gov. The same site lists many other unusual items for sale, including lab equipment, industrial machinery and even a DC-9 aircraft previously used as Air Force Two.
At a Glance
• Built in Buffalo, N.Y., and transported to its current location aboard the steamer Wotan
• Structure is considered a classic, four-square style
• Stands 42 feet tall
• First lit in 1925
• Uninhabited since 1948
• Still serves as an active aid to navigation, and is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard
• Houses a National Weather Service weather detection system (Station FAIO1) that shows current marine weather observations