The lighthouse keeper’s house on Straitsmouth Island was in ruins when Joseph Napolitano and volunteers from the Thacher Island Association began renovating the building in 2013. Now that the work is almost done, Napolitano and his wife, Peggy Flanagan, are the first lighthouse keepers to live on the island in nearly 80 years.
The newly renovated house is theirs for only a week before a string of volunteers spend weeklong stints as keepers on Straitsmouth through Labor Day; a new tradition the Thacher Island Association looks to continue each summer thanks to the efforts of Napolitano, his company, Napco Inc., and dozens of volunteers.
“When he was asked if the house could be saved, Joe said ‘anything can be saved,’” Flanagan said. “That’s what he really prides himself on doing, saving history.”
The house was built in 1878 to replace a small, decrepit building the keepers had lived in since the first lighthouse was constructed on Straitsmouth in 1835. After the last lighthouse keeper lived there in the early 1900s, the Coast Guard occupied the island for several years before selling it to private owners in the mid-1930s.
Straitsmouth was donated to the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1967 following the death of William Francis Gibbs, a naval architect who owned the island for several years. Mass Audubon maintained it as a wildlife sanctuary until 2014 when the town of Rockport and the Thacher Island Association signed a 30-year lease to use the island’s buildings.
The eastern wall of the house had completely fallen off and the structure was beyond disrepair when Napolitano and members of the Thacher Island Association first inspected the building.
But for Napolitano, who specializes in historic preservation, the project was far from unfamiliar territory. He led the renovation of the Thacher Island keeper’s house in the early 2000s, and worked on historic buildings like the House of the Seven Gables in Salem and the Sargent House in Gloucester throughout his career as a contractor.
“Anything can be repaired,” said Napolitano. “Only life can’t be.”
Napolitano and volunteers worked for two-and-a-half months each year on the island’s rough terrain to complete the renovation. Because Straitsmouth initially had no docks or boating ramps, building materials had to be lifted from boats that were backed into alcoves of rough water and carried across rocks covered in kelp in order to reach the house.
Ocean swells, changing tides and unpredictable weather made this work more difficult or even impossible on some days, and helicopters were used to carry in the largest materials.
“It doesn’t matter how big the problem is,” Napolitano said. “It’s all about the solution, and that’s what (this project) is all about.”
Now the house has newly installed internet and electricity that are powered by solar panels, running water is provided by a rainwater filtering system and each room is adorned with antique furniture and decor that date back to when the house was originally built. A live webcam on the property also lets people see what’s happening on the island at any time. In all, the project cost $400,000 and was paid for by the Thacher Island Association, the state, the Rockport Community Preservation Committee and Mass Audubon.
To Napolitano, the house is a testament to the hard work of the people who renovated it.
“It’s taken a lot of energy from a lot of people and that’s the biggest thing here,” Napolitano said.
Paul St. Germain, president of the of the Thacher Island Association, said volunteers have helped wherever they could regardless of their skills, and that the project has been a positive experience throughout.
“People just gravitate to (the project),” St. Germain said. “The volunteers love going out on the island because it’s such a different experience. Everybody is friendly. Everybody enjoys the work.”
While Napolitano and Flanagan are the first to live in the house following its renovation, this is not their first time volunteering as lighthouse keepers. They have spent at least one week each summer as keepers on Thacher Island for the past 14 years, where tourists and locals regularly camp or wander through its many trails.
Straitsmouth, however, has been closed to the public for more than 180 years up until this summer. There is only one trail and its lighthouse has less than 40 step,s compared to the nearly 150 steps in each of the towering Twin Lights on Thacher. But as Napolitano looked out at the house and surrounding harbor from the top of Straitsmouth’s brick lighthouse, he saw that there is still something special about the little island.
“My favorite part is being right here,” said Napolitano. “When you’re down in the thick of (the island), you lose the value of it a bit. You really get the value of it when you see it from above.”