On a recent impeccably gorgeous day on Florida’s Panhandle, my business meeting ended by noon and with coaxing from my co-worker Mike, we decided to head east where I could play lighthouse tour guide. About ten miles from Cape San Blas is the quaint town of Port St. Joe. I traditionally stop here on my way to Cape San Blas in order to photograph St. Joseph Point Lighthouse. Without some lighthouse research, you would drive right past this indiscriminate landmark. Though steeped in historical significance, this “lighthouse” is a private residence. A cupola remains, but it is minus a lantern room or lens.
On previous visits, I honored the private property designation and photographed the house only from the highway at the end of the long driveway. However, during this trip I was encouraged by my curious co-worker to walk about halfway up the driveway for a closer view. The property was serene and seemingly deserted so surely no one would notice. Before I could shoot a single frame, a car turned off the highway and approached us. An attractive young lady with a charming southern accent asked if we were there to see the lighthouse. Searching for justification, I quickly mentioned I was a freelance photographer conducting research for my Lighthouse Association. I’m not sure if she bought into that, but when I asked if the Raffields still owned the house, it put her at ease. “Why yes, I’m the Raffields’ daughter,” she replied! She presented me with her father’s phone numbers so I could coordinate a more formal tour. Meantime, she invited us to walk and photograph the grounds of the lighthouse on the edge of the scenic Gulf Coast. I asked about the status of adding a lantern room atop the house. She confirmed the lantern room originally reserved for the house had tragically been destroyed in a Port St Joe warehouse fire a few years ago. I was told Mr. Raffield is still planning to acquire an appropriate replacement. The bit of good fortune and timing I experienced at St. Joseph Point Lighthouse was a positive omen for the visit to Cape San Blas Light, just a short drive away...
In June 2004, I visited Cape San Blas on the FL panhandle. It was a return trip from Nov. 2000 and I anticipated the dilapidated old Light Keepers House would be little more than driftwood after
four years of tropical storms. To my amazement it was still standing, leaning precariously to the right and looking dismal next to the proud iron skeleton tower housing the clamshell Fresnel lens. Florida was pummeled by several hurricanes in summer 2004 and I just knew that fragile Light Keepers House would be destroyed. So as I set out to visit Cape San Blas for a third time last week, I had rather a pessimistic attitude of what I would find.
The first thing I noticed when I turned onto Cape San Blas Light Drive was the new welcome sign – “Restoration of Lighthouse Keepers Quarters.” During previous visits, only ominous “US Air Force property” signs were present. I had mixed emotions about this change. Cape San Blas was becoming a public tourist stop, whereas, being a government employee, I’d gotten used to having this previously desolate location all to myself. But something positive must be behind these shiny new welcome signs? What I discovered amazed me. The previously decrepit old Keepers House was standing tall and proud under careful renovation.
The Keepers House, Assistant Keepers House and light tower were behind a rather unphotogenic construction fence. When one of the foremen took a break from his work, I complimented him on the impressive job – providing new life to a feeble house that had been nearing collapse. He acknowledged politely but quickly went back to the task at hand. Once again, I dealt the “freelance lighthouse photographer” card. I expressed my concerns about documenting this chapter of lighthouse history and before I knew it, had the
lead foreman engaged in lighthouse preservation conversation. To my delight, I was invited on-site to view the photo archives of the lighthouse restoration, documented by the lead foreman, Dimitri Gioglis. He even let me sneak in a few archival shots of my own while on the closed to the public grounds.
Dimitri is president of New Millenium Construction Inc., a unique company specializing in historical restorations. Dimitri proudly pointed out that his company had maintained and restored 90% of the original Keepers House. In the images I shot, you can see the original and new woodwork coexisting during the phase of renovation I had the good fortune of viewing. I also photographed Dimitri posing with an original and intricately detailed replica of woodwork used to maintain and mimic as much of the original house as possible. Dimitri had a true passion for the historical aspect of his important work and raved about his dream job. Along with the renovation images, he showed me beautiful pictures of nesting eagles and glorious sunsets composed from his idyllic worksite at Cape San Blas. As for me, what was supposed to be a whirlwind two-day business trip to Florida had somehow turned into another memorable lighthouse experience.
Dimitri’s wonderful photos of life and lighthouse restoration at Cape San Blas can be found at his website: http://www.nmcchistorical.com/
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This story appeared in the
June 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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