Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2015

Buffalo Lighthouse Gets New Lens

Finally, New York State’s historic 1833 Buffalo Lighthouse looks “right”

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Over the course of a thirty-year preservation effort that has cost about three-quarters of a million dollars, the Buffalo Lighthouse Association has been bothered by the lack of a properly-sized lens for the graceful limestone tower’s third-order lantern. Back in 1987, toward the start of the project, the Association brought the 1903 fourth-order lens from the decommissioned South Buffalo Lighthouse out of storage and installed it in the older tower’s lantern, which had been empty since 1914. But that still didn’t feel “right.”

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“It definitely helped, and relighting it was a major civic event,” recalls Mike Vogel, the Association’s president. “South Buffalo had a very large bivalve fourth-order and most people wouldn’t know the difference, but we did. With that deteriorating lens needing removal for conservation, we decided we needed to fill the void with a lens of the proper order.”

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So the Association launched a $120,000 lens project that culminated Sept. 28 with the installation of a new third-order Fresnel lens crafted by Dan Spinella of Artworks Florida. Built of 149 pieces, the lens came together in the lantern over a ten-hour period, with prisms and lens assemblies carefully joined by Spinella and Buffalo Lighthouse Association volunteers including Vogel, J.J. Ptak and Gene Witkowski.

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Next up is some testing to see how the new lens can be lit. The lighthouse no longer is a working aid to navigation, so the aim will be a cosmetic relighting using a blend of old and new lighting systems.

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Kurt Fosberg built an old-style replica oil lamp for the installation, but also wired that piece to put an electric bulb in the center of the lens. There also are four three-LED clusters mounted to the base ring, to shine upward through the prisms. Buffalo’s Lighthouse Point parkland is leased by the Association from the Coast Guard, and the group will be working with the Coast Guard to set up the lighting.

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The lens itself is optical acrylic, considerably lighter than a glass lens, with the prisms lightly tinted to replicate the look of an original flint glass lens.

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“There’s an increasingly significant debate in the lighthouse community about aging Fresnel lenses,” observes Vogel, who launched the National Lighthouse Lens Inventory project for the American Lighthouse Council and United States Lighthouse Society back in the 1990s. “When the drive for authenticity rules, it makes sense to keep the original Fresnel lenses in place in the towers that long held them – provided they can be protected.

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“But with the litharge originally used as a prism bedding compound reaching or surpassing its chemical lifespan, sunlight and temperature fluctuations could be setting up older lenses for structural failures. That’s a real concern, for those of us charged with proper stewardship of these priceless artifacts. In some cases, it makes sense to remove and protect the artifact by placing it on controlled museum display, and to put a replica in its place. I think you’ll see more and more of that, as the years roll by.”

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In Buffalo, he added, the decision to remove and replace an original lens was relatively easy. The lens that was in the 68-foot tower from 1987 until 2013 was the wrong size and never actually served in the 1833 lighthouse. With litharge deterioration accelerating, the Association realized that stewardship meant removal and careful conservation – and that there was a chance to put a more historically correct lens in its place.

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Spare third-order lenses are exactly available for the asking, and the Association also realized that it would have fewer concerns about visitor contact with a lens that wasn’t an historic artifact.

Back in 2003, the Association had partnered with the National Park Service and the American Lighthouse Council (which Vogel then headed) to hold a national lens conservation workshop in Buffalo. As part of that workshop, which drew trainees from government agencies and not-for-profit lighthouse organizations, expert lampist Jim Woodward did full assessments of the lens then in the tower and a third-order revolving Chance Brothers lens now on display in the Buffalo History Museum. With that assessment as a baseline, the Association brought back Woodward and lampist Jim Dunlap to remove and conserve the fourth-order lens.

At the same time, it commissioned Spinella to build a new third-order lens, the largest size he has attempted (a second one is now being started). This first lens came together slowly, as it pushed the limits of acrylic prism-casting techniques.

“The finished lens is simply beautiful,” Vogel reports. “And it’s a major relief to see our lighthouse regain its soul, with the lantern filled with a lens once again.”

The new lens evokes the fixed BBT lens that occupied the lantern from 1857 to 1905, when it was replaced by the revolving Chance Brothers lens; the flash made the light much more visible against the background of lights from the city. The original lens seems not to have survived.

The revolving optic occupied the lantern for only nine years, before the old stone tower was decommissioned in 1914 and its lens moved to a newer breakwater lighthouse that had been built as Buffalo’s harbor kept expanding farther into Lake Erie. In 1959, that lighthouse was rammed by a freighter, pushing its entire crib foundation back twenty feet and tilting the lighthouse by fifteen degrees. The “Leaning Lighthouse” couldn’t revolve the lens, so it was removed and a temporary light tower built until a new automated light tower, topped by an aerobeacon, could be built on a breakwater even farther out into the lake.

The Chance Brothers lens now is displayed in the Buffalo History Museum, and the conserved South Buffalo Lighthouse lens is displayed with other Association artifacts in the Heritage Discovery Center in South Buffalo. The Association this year launched an $850,000 restoration project at the South Buffalo breakwater light station, but has no plans to return the lens to that 44-foot tower.

It does plan, however, to celebrate the new lens with an “unveiling” weekend event in the spring, when the 2016 Great Lakes navigation season is under way.

“The 1987 relighting was a lot of fun, and a major event. We’re a border city, and the relighting was part of the largest party in waterfront history, the opening of the first international Friendship Festival held in Buffalo and the town of Fort Erie in Canada. We had fireworks, a few hundred thousand people on both sides of the Niagara River, hundreds of boats in the harbor, and a celebration at Lighthouse Point. The relighting was keyed to a broadcast live performance from Fort Erie, just across the water, of the War of 1812 Overture by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Toronto’s Mendelssohn Choir. I’m not sure we can top that, but we’re certainly ready to celebrate.”

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2015 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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