MARQUETTE - What began as an interest in the Great Lakes has turned into something much more for Marquette resident Ken Czapski.
Czapski, a Marquette-based architect, has spent years combining his personal and professional interests, restoring the classic lighthouses of the Great Lakes.
"I think it certainly started with just an interest in the lakes themselves, just the Great Lakes and shipping. Really, it is not something that I specifically planned to get into," said Czapski, 59. "It has just evolved into a nice blending of an interest in our nautical world, our maritime world, and combining that with architecture."
Marquette architect Ken Czapski, right, works on the Ontonagon Lighthouse. Czapski has spent years working on restoring the classic lighthouses of the Great Lakes. Two of the classic lighthouses he’s worked on are shown. (Photo courtesy of Ken Czapski)
Over the years, he has assisted on about two dozen lighthouse restoration projects spanning the shores of three Great Lakes, including the DeTour Reef Lighthouse, the Whitefish Point Light Station and the Marquette Light Station.
He estimates that only about a dozen firms in the state market themselves to groups looking to undertake lighthouse restoration projects. His firm, Marquette's Sanders & Czapski Associates, does.
From Czapski's point of view - as a professional being commissioned to undertake a lighthouse restoration project - a number of challenges typically present
For each project, he pieces together a massive historic structures report, in which he identifies restoration work to be done to a particular building or group of buildings. All plans, he said, must fit into a period of significance, a historic year or period of years that the restored structure will reflect.
"When these things are restored, you're not just restoring them back to their original date of construction. Oftentimes, you're re-establishing a period of significance for these structures," Czapski said. "Though you might have a lighthouse that was built in 1860, with the restoration and the rehabilitation work, you might be targeting 1910."
As many light stations are a century old or more, a restoration - even to a fairly distant period of significance - will often include amenities that didn't exist upon the building's original construction. Czapski said it is acceptable to weave these modern amenities, like electricity, into a design, so long as it is done tastefully and within the context of the period.
After the historic preservation report is completed and the specific project goals are identified, the plans must be approved by the state's historic preservation office. It takes a great deal of time and work, according to Czapski, to simply get a plan set in stone.
And that work comes only after the largest hurdle of all is cleared: funds must first be secured for a project.
The more than 300 light stations that dot the shores of the five Great Lakes once served an absolutely vital purpose. For decades, they helped to alert, direct and protect ship captains, sailors, fishermen and pleasure boaters who found themselves on some of the world's largest freshwater lakes. As technology improved, though, the light stations became less important.
"Some of the lighthouses still function as a navigational light, but what has happened as technology has advanced is the boaters and the shipping people are navigating using GPS systems," said Czapski, who also sits on the board of directors for the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, a Lansing-based group that advocates for the preservation and restoration of historic buildings. "You no longer need to see a light on the horizon to tell you where you are."
The time came when the U.S. Coast Guard, which controlled most of the lighthouses, no longer needed a great many of them. Occasionally, the Coast Guard will now determine a lighthouse to be excess to its needs and will make the property available at no cost to eligible entities, which include federal, state, local or educational agencies or non-profit organizations.
The shifts help the Coast Guard to operate more efficiently, according to Doug Sharp, a marine information specialist with the U.S. Coast Guard's Ninth District aids to navigation office. While the organization tries to do some upkeep on the properties, it isn't easy, he said.
"Basically, what happens is the Coast Guard deems the building and property is excess, in other words we don't need it any longer," Sharp said. "We do have a program in place where we do some maintenance on lighthouses to make them somewhat weather tight and sound, but there's a lot of lighthouses and a little bit of money. We do what we can."
The majority of excess lighthouses end up in the hands of non-profit organizations, according to Czapski. The non-profits typically attempt to raise funds and secure grants from state and federal organizations in order to restore the structures. If the beacon light atop a structure is still needed, the Coast Guard will often retain an easement allowing it simply to maintain the light.
"Most of these lighthouses, there are so many things that need to be done to them," Czapski said. "You have to bear in mind that when the lighthouses were under the care and jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Coast Guard had literally an endless supply of enlisted men and women. That would be their responsibility, to take care of the physical maintenance on these properties. All of a sudden, that entity is gone and somebody else has to step in and take over for that.
"As the federal government has stepped away, that burden has shifted to local government units and the non-profit sector to a certain degree. And it's a struggle," he continued. "It's a struggle to find the funding to take care of these places. There are a lot that need attention and there definitely is not enough funding."
In May of this year, four Michigan lighthouses were deemed excess by the Coast Guard, including Stannard Rock Light - located about 23 miles southeast of Manitou Island - and the Manistique East Breakwater Light. No plans have yet been made for Stannard Rock Light, which Sharp described as "a logistical nightmare." But the city of Manistique has partnered with the non-profit Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy in an attempt to get control of the Manistique East Breakwater Light.
City Manager Sheila Aldrich said the light is a bit dilapidated and said she is excited to not only see a bit of a restoration, but also to keep the light in safe hands.
"The lighthouse in Manistique - to a lot of people, it is Manistique. We certainly would like to see it restored and stay intact where it's at," she said. "We have a lot of people stop right along U.S. 2 on Lake Michigan. Probably, there are more pictures taken of that lighthouse than of anything on our shoreline."
The city agreed recently to pay $2,500 to Czapski's firm to commission a historic structures report and to support the lighthouse conservancy's efforts. On his end, Czapski said he is also happy to have a hand in preserving a piece of Great Lakes history.
"When you can put forth some effort to stabilize and even restore those lighthouses and those structures and you can save a building that might in a few more years be completely and totally gone, that's kind of a nice feeling," he said. "They really all feel like that. Even a small project. They're all really important."
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.