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Nonprofit group buys lighthouse
Sunday, February 28, 1999  —  Charleston Post and Courier

The Morris Island Lighthouse, a 127-year-old beacon of bricks stranded in a shallow sea off Folly Beach, has been bought by a nonprofit group that plans to shore it up and give it to the state.

"We think this is a historic day for the community," said Robert New of the grass-roots group, Save the Light Inc. "The Morris Island Lighthouse is the most visible symbol for this community of its long and proud maritime history."

Save the Light bought the lighthouse, one of the nation's tallest, for $75,000 from Columbia logger Paul Gunter.

The nonprofit took out a bank note guaranteed by both New and Charleston artist Jim Booth.

"This is the first time that the public, the people of South Carolina, have owned the lighthouse, and it's going to take everyone's donation to preserve it," said Booth, who is planning to release a special print to raise money for its restoration.

Friday's purchase is expected to set in motion a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the lighthouse's most serious problem: How to protect the submerged foundation.

"The lighthouse has suffered from three and a half decades of total neglect," New said. "If there is not a move under way to save the lighthouse, it's clear that it's doomed."

A preliminary estimate by the corps shows that job could cost between $1 million and $1.5 million, provided no major foundation flaws are found.

"If we could get the study under way and we don't run into foundation problems, we could try to get this thing under construction this year," said Matthew Laws III, chief of the corps' engineering and planning division in Charleston.

Rep. Lynn Seithel, R-James Island, is seeking $1 million in the state budget for the lighthouse repair. She said she also is working to get the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to take title to the lighthouse. New said the group wants to convey the property to the department.

"It's certainly appropriate. It's in state waters, and I think it's a historical landmark in the state," Seithel said.

Plans to get state money for the lighthouse still must be navigated through the legislature, while transferring title to the state needs approval from the S.C. Budget and Control Board.

"We're going to nudge them along," New said, adding that even his old arch-rival from his days on the Charleston County School Board - state Rep. John Graham Altman III - has said he supports the idea.

"The timing of it all is going to work out really well," Seithel said. "The delegation was very receptive to the lighthouse committee's efforts when they came before the delegation recently."

Possibly before the state takes title, the Army Corps will begin a thorough engineering study of the lighthouse. Laws said that would take about six months and cost about $100,000.

Any plan would be cleared through environmental agencies, and Laws said the corps could pick up about 65 percent of the cost.

"One of the first things we'll do is to survey the lighthouse to determine if it's in fact vertical," Laws said. "At times, there's as much as 10 feet of water around the lighthouse. And there is continued erosion in that area."

Laws said he is encouraged by how well the lighthouse weathered Hurricane Hugo 10 years ago.

The purchase was a victory for grass-roots efforts that have percolated on James Island and Folly Beach since the lighthouse went up for auction a few years ago.

"To me, the most important point is we never gave up," said Barbara Schoch, a James Islander who helped form the special committee with Johnny Ohlandt, who owns the island near the lighthouse.

Ohlandt said he visited the lighthouse late last week, and it appeared to be in good shape. Aside from the foundation, its biggest problem has been caused by trespassing vandals.

He noted that an earlier effort to board up the door lasted less than a week, but he placed a fresh "No Trespassing" sign there last week.

The work of lighthouse supporters is only beginning.

New said they hope to raise as much as $1 million in private donations to refurbish the structure. While shoring up the foundation is the most urgent task, there is plenty of other work to do in a second phase.

The lighthouse has no doors or windows. Its masonry is cracked and needs repair, possibly painting. New noted the recent cost of painting the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse came to between $150,000 and $200,000.

Also, supporters may like to develop a viewing point on the former Coast Guard base now owned by the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission on the eastern end of Folly Beach. That's the best vantage point on land to view the lighthouse.

There are no immediate plans to refurbish the lighthouse so people could visit and climb its 199 steps, especially as it's accessible only by boat.

"Given where it's located, it's difficult to imagine it ever being a tourist attraction," New said.

"We're not going to turn the light back on."

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