Quarters Fit for a Lighthouse Keeper

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Contractor Jason Biondo photographed outside the newly-renovated Montauk Lighthouse keeper's residence. Michael Heller photos

The floors were painted a dull shade of grey, the color of the sky on one of those cold, listless mornings when winter has long settled in but spring is still nowhere in sight. It was slapped on in thick coats, without much care or art, and Jason Biondo had a good guess about how it got there.

It was what was underneath those layers of grey that he truly cared about, and he was going to bring it to life again.

“The Coast Guard ran this place for decades,” he said. “And they did whatever their superior officer told them to do. If he said, ‘You’re not going home until you paint the floors,’ then they’d find some paint and paint the floors.”

The place he’s referring to of course is the Montauk Lighthouse—specifically, the second-story, two-bedroom apartment situated above the museum and gift shop that, since 1860, has been home to a rotation of people and families who held the all-important post of lighthouse keeper. For the first time since 1962, the keeper’s quarters is undergoing a renovation, and Biondo’s company, Hammerhead Construction, has been doing the work for the past six months, nearing completion. When it comes to square-footage, it’s not a big job — the apartment includes two modest-sized bedrooms, a kitchen area and living space, situated across the hallway from several offices. But the delight is in the details for Biondo, a third-generation Montauk resident, and his crew, who have been tasked with the delicate assignment of bringing the apartment up to date while also paying homage to the rich history of the state’s oldest lighthouse.

Biondo and the Hammerhead crew have been treasure hunters of sorts throughout the process, and what they found once they stripped away the soul-less gray paint was a perfect example — wood floors, constructed more than a hundred years ago, from high-quality Douglas fir. After the careful removal of the paint, and a rebuffing, the floors have been restored to their original mastery, of a kind not commonly seen these days, according to Biondo. Leaving that kind of original craftsmanship intact, rather than replacing it, is part of the balance.

“The magic in this place is not in my hand,” Biondo said. “It’s me knowing when not to put my hand on it.”

New trim-work, cabinets and bathroom tiles have livened up the apartment, and up-to-date appliances will replace the 1960s-era appliances that were still there until recently.

But historic touches like the refurbished flooring are not only visible but purposely and meticulously brought to the fore in a way that pays homage to them.

Biondo was, in many ways, the perfect fit for the project. He is a true local, having lived year-round in Montauk his entire life. And he also has extensive knowledge about old and reclaimed wood, having run another business, Antique Lumber Company, for years.

“People know me as the guy who understands how to retrofit and use reclaimed lumber,” Biondo said. Bill Becker, the vice president of the Montauk Historical Society and member of the lighthouse committee, came to visit Biondo on a jobsite to ask if he’d be interested in taking on the project. It was a no-brainer for Biondo.

“I said, ‘are you kidding me? This is an honor,’” Biondo said of his response.

Jason Biondo in the living quarters of the keeper of the Montauk Lighthouse, which he renovated.

As work got underway, plans unfolded, as they do on any construction or renovation project. But those plans often changed, Biondo said, and the ability and willingness to adapt to those changes was a necessary skill for this kind of work. Far from a frustration, it was a delightful journey of discovery, Biondo said, to work on a structure that was built in the early 1800s.

“The way it was framed was pretty amazing. This was back when carpenters were really woodworkers. When we stripped all the walls and got down to the timbers, it was just such a cool treat to see what those timbers looked like. Once we saw how beautiful it all was, and it was concealed for over 200 years, we said, we have to expose some of this. So we opted to change the initial game plan and keep a lot of the original framework exposed, and figured out a way to fill in the gaps in between.”

Aside from the structural nods to history, the crew also made a few other special discoveries, including a newspaper article about the Gestapo, from 1938, hidden within the walls. Two brick fireplaces that had been previously plastered over were exposed as well, although they will be a decorative element and will not be restored to working order.

Biondo said he had the full support of the board of the Montauk Historical Society — which owns the lighthouse — in his effort to showcase and bring back to life the many historical elements that had been hidden over time.

“I’ve dealt with plenty of boards before, with building condos and other places, and this was the coolest board in the world because they all had the same common goal of, let’s encapsulate whatever cool history we just exposed,” Biondo said. “They gave me a lot of creative leeway.”

The result, so far, has been a beautiful marriage of old and new. The centuries old framework on the ceiling is brought to centerstage, with a new crisp, clean white ceiling laid carefully in between the old beams that serves to highlight them. Mr. Biondo also used reclaimed wood in several areas, including above the threshold to one of the bedrooms, where the original wood had some dry rot. He used a piece of hemlock that he said he’d pulled out of a field at an old dairy farm in western Pennsylvania, which he estimated to be from the mid 1800s. A foreman from another East Hampton-based building company gave Biondo 20 old doors from a house he was working on in East Hampton that was built around the late 1600s or early 1700s. Two of those doors are now in the keeper’s quarters.

Biondo said roughly 25 percent of the wood was refurbished in that kind of way, while the rest of the woodwork from the original construction was still in good shape, but said the “new” pieces fit in seamlessly.

In a few short weeks, when the renovation is done, the updated apartment will become home to a new resident — Joe Gaviola. He takes over from former longtime keeper Marge Winski, who retired in June of 2018 and moved to Maine. Winski was the keeper for 30 years, maintaining a job at the Montauk Post Office during that time. She described the intricacies of the job that Gaviola has started to learn about in the few months he’s been living on the property, awaiting the completion of the renovation.

“You really have no privacy,” she said. “You’re sort of on display up there.”

Winski said she loved being there the most in the winter, particularly during a good snowstorm. Sometimes, during a snow, she would make her way to the top of the tower, in the lantern room. “It was like being in a snow globe,” she said.

Snowy winters weren’t all good memories, however. Winski said that a few years ago, during a particularly blustery storm, she’d returned to the lighthouse from town and her car had gotten stuck in the driveway. As she trudged her way up the hill, she was blown off her feet, losing her car keys in the process. After a few frantic moments, she found them. The experience, she said, made her realize that, even in modern times, the life of a lighthouse keeper could still be life-threatening at times. But she said even an experience like that did not dampen her enthusiasm for the post.

“It’s dangerous being all alone out there,” she said. “But I loved it. It was really an honor.”

Joe Gaviola, the new keeper of the Montauk Lighthouse.

So far, Gaviola seems to share that kind of affection for the post. On look alone, he is a departure from the traditional aesthetic of earlier lighthouse keepers. Photos of keepers from years past feature men with thick, grizzled beards or long handlebar moustaches, part of a decidedly seafaring look. A businessman and stock trader, Gaviola is tall, polished and clean cut, lacking the facial hair and stern bearing of male keepers of the past, who appeared as battered by nature and the elements as the rocks and sand protecting the lighthouse itself. But he has spent many years in Montauk, formerly owning a second home there while also spending significant time out on the water, with a particular affinity and talent for shark fishing. He has owned several businesses in the town as well. Most crucial, his love for Montauk, and geek-level fascination with the history of the place, make him a perfect fit. He says he still gets chills every time he pulls up the driveway to his new home. When he tells the story about going to the auction, in 2007, to purchase the documents — on behalf of the historical society — commissioning the building of the lighthouse, signed by George Washington, he thumps his fist against his chest to drive home the point he’s making about how hard and fast his heart was beating in that moment. It is clear that he views the lighthouse and the property surrounding it as hallowed ground.

“Montauk has changed a lot in the last 10 years,” he said. “It’s probably changed more in the last 10 years than the previous 30. But inside those gates, nothing has changed. It’s like going back in time. There are very few places [in Montauk] that are doing that.”

He said he was thrilled to take up the history-rich post, and move into the apartment.

“I feel such an attachment to this place,” he said. “It’s the symbol of Long Island.”

For her part, Winski admitted that the feeling is bittersweet knowing that the renovation came less than a year after her three decades of living there ended. She returned for a visit recently, but said she purposely did not take a peek into the apartment, saying she wanted to remember it the way it was. But decades down the line, when perhaps another renovation is under way, she made sure to leave her mark.

“I hid stuff in the walls over the years,” she said, a hint of playful mischief in her voice. “I wrote a letter and put some other stuff in there. Just to leave a hidden legacy. Maybe nobody will find it.”

The urge to do that speaks to Winski’s clear understanding of the special nature of her former home.

“I always felt the presence [of former residents],” she said. “Just touching the banister, you felt, like, how many people have touched this over the generations.”

Gone are the days where the lighthouse keeper needed to do all manner of manual labor — so much, in fact, that for many years it was a three-person job. The lighthouse has been fully automated since 1987, so Gaviola won’t be lighting the lamp or cleaning the lenses. In modern times, he considers his post in this way: he’s a steward, there on a 24-7 basis to watch over the national historic landmark and protect it against would-be vandals or break-ins. And, bringing his expertise in the financial world to bear, he is an ambassador, meant to remind the public and potential financial backers of the lighthouse’s vital role in the history of the country, and the necessity of ensuring the funds are there to keep it up and running and preserved for many years to come. Because the lighthouse is owned by the historical society and not a government entity, it is not funded by taxpayer dollars, relying instead on money made in the gift shop as well as charitable donations.

The job has its pros and cons, of course, and Gaviola acknowledged one of the most obvious — the view.

“You look out your window at the Long Island Sound, and then turn your head and see Block Island Sound, and the Atlantic Ocean,” he said, calling it “sublime.”  Becker pointed out that the keeper faces two extremes during the year — near total isolation in the winter, and a near total lack of privacy during the summer, when stepping outside means facing the throngs of tourists and sightseers that visit the lighthouse on a regular basis.

Gaviola seems at once fully aware of those pros and cons, and unfazed about taking the good with the bad, clearly beyond thrilled to make the drive to the point every day.

Biondo and the Hammerhead crew won’t be trekking out there much longer, but like Gaviola, and Winski, they share a reverence for the lighthouse and its place in history. It’s not a job that will fade from Mr. Biondo’s view and melt into the larger memory bank of finished work.

“It’s a big deal; it’s the Montauk Lighthouse,” he said. “None of this is about the money. It’s about having your hands on this place that’s directly connected with George Washington. It sounds so hokey, but it’s true. We have our small little stamp in the two-bedroom apartment upstairs. We’ll always have that.”

BEHIND THE WALL

Sometimes renovations can be something like an archeological dig. Artifacts of a previous time can turn up unexpectedly. Here are a few relics discovered during the recent renovation of the lighthouse keepers’s quarters in Montauk.

A September 7, 1893 page from Life magazine that was found inside the walls of the keeper’s quarters.
A 1922 annual report from the commissioner of lighthouses.
An old match box was also found during the renovation.
A tin box that cone held pipe tobacco.
A piece of the Daily News from January 11, 1939, featuring news about the war in Europe, unearthed from the walls of the lighthouse keeper’s quarters.

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