STONINGTON — The inside of the borough's Old Lighthouse Museum has been gutted and readied for renovation, an effort that members of the Stonington Historical Society are hoping will help restore and preserve the building for years to come.
Society members, town officials and select community dignitaries received an inside look at the Lighthouse Museum's $1.3 million restoration project Thursday afternoon, marking the first time the building has opened since it closed for the season in 2019. Josh Adams, director of development and communications for the historical society, said Phase I construction on the building, which officials said includes necessary demolition, renovation and restoration, has begun.
Consigli Construction, a New England construction company based in Medford, Mass., began work on the building in October.
"With this phase of the project, the goal has been to identify any issues and stop the building from deteriorating, which will better protect the artifacts held inside," Adams said. "This is a necessary step in preserving the museum for future generations."
The construction is part of a $2.75 million project that will be completed in two phases. The second phase, Adams said, will include the construction of an addition to the building that will extend from the existing L-room. The addition will have a footprint of only 480 square feet, but is both above- and below-ground and will expand interior space by nearly 1,000 square feet, with the space serving as an entrance vestibule for the museum and extended exhibit space.
Adams and Historical Society Executive Director Aimee Newell said they are pleased with the progress on Phase I so far and hope that the work will be completed by May. The goal, they said, is to reopen the museum to the public this summer.
There is no timeline for phase II of the project just yet, but multiple board members said that if all goes according to plan, the society hopes phase II work could take place next winter.
The work may be progressing nicely now, but Michael Schefers admits that there were a number of challenges that the board needed to address to bring the project to fruition.
Schefers, who serves as the president of the Stonington Historical Society's board of directors, said the organization has been working toward this renovation for nearly six years. A lot has changed over that time, including changes to the design and scope of the second phase of the project.
"There was certainly some early resistance from neighbors," Schefers explained. "They didn't want a glass addition, which was a modern design concept we had initially planned to use. So we needed to go back to the drawing board and have come up with a new plan that would use cedar planks and reflect the historical value of this property."
Designs also met a roadblock at the state level after the plans were presented to the State Historic Preservation Office. State officials expressed concerns with a proposal to remove the old L-shaped room in favor of an extended addition. Schefers said that decision also impacted the redesign.
When the new design plan went back before the borough's Planning and Zoning Commission, Schefers noted that neighbors shared further concerns regarding use of the property and whether the renovations would turn the facility into an event destination.
"That was never the goal or intent," Schefers said. "It is a tight space down here and we certainly understand the concerns regarding traffic and other challenges, which allowed us to come to an amicable agreement."
Under the agreement between the historical society and neighbors, the museum will able to maintain all previous operations, including hosting a large event and/or annual gala each year, but would limit activity beyond that to smaller, single-day programs that would limit impact to the surrounding community.
Newell said once all the work is done, the museum will be in good shape to maintain itself and expand exhibit offerings for the better part of the next century.
"One of the biggest impacts the project has is the preservation component," Newell said. "As we took the walls off, it became immediately clear how serious some of the deterioration was. It needed to be addressed, and now it will be built like new."
Newell said the site is an important historical marker in the community because of the significance that the lighthouse has in Stonington's storied 370-plus year history.
The current lighthouse was built in 1840 and served as a beacon for Little Narragansett Bay until 1889. The Stonington Historical Society purchased the lighthouse from the U.S. government in 1925 and it initially served as a tea room and museum until the tea room closed in 1948.
The Old Lighthouse Museum was formally identified as a historical property in 1976 when it was accepted into the National Register of Historic Places.
Newell said beyond preserving this rich history, the renovations and eventual addition will both serve to create more space to expand exhibits and will create a climate-controlled atmosphere to protect the artifacts. It will also allow the organization to obtain museum accreditation, which provides opportunities such as potentially borrowing exhibits from other museums or securing grant funding for other future program opportunities.
"This work will have a lasting impact for the museum. You don't always know what is needed until you open the walls, and based on what we've seen, this project came at the right time," Newell said.