NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- Check this out:
Three-story living space in a 19th-century beauty, privacy assured, water view on all sides. Cast-iron construction. They don't build 'em like that anymore.
Neither do they want to.
The Newport News Middleground Lighthouse is up for adoption because its owner -- the U.S. Coast Guard -- can't afford the upkeep on the Victorian-era structure. It's the only lighthouse in Virginia on the adoption list, and it has some great selling points.
It's free to a good home. It's lovely. It's round. Its inside is wood-framed and its outside is deep primer red, tip to toe. It also has a down side with a weirdly negative cast on the real estate adage: location, location, location.
The Middleground Lighthouse stands in the center of Hampton Roads harbor, warning ships away from the Middleground Shoal. It has stood there since 1891, cautioning merchant ships traveling the James River or anchoring just offshore, guiding the Navy in and out of port.
The National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 authorizes the disposal of historic lighthouses and stations to government agencies and nonprofits. It calls for adopted lighthouses to be used as public parks or for educational, recreational, cultural or historic preservation purposes. No commercial uses. That's okay if the public can reach them. But it presents a problem for the Middleground light.
"It's in the middle of an active shipping channel," said Anne Puppa, president of the U.S. Lighthouse Society's Chesapeake Bay chapter. "Getting people out to visit it would be a challenge."
There is no dock, no island, no landing platform out in the channel. Maintenance crews enter by boating out to a dangling metal ladder and swarming up the rungs. Rough water means waiting for the boat to rise on a swell before making a well-timed grab.
"Ease of access has not been our main concern," said John Walters, chief of the local Coast Guard's waterways management section. "We have reasonably fit, athletic fellows, and they can access the light."
The Middleground light is built on a caisson, a circular tube of cast iron sunk deep into the sands of the shoal. Water was pumped out of the tube, then sand was dug out and replaced with concrete and stones. Caissons could withstand the crushing pressure of ice floes, which toppled many screw-pile lighthouses -- wooden houses perched on a lattice of legs -- around the Bay. The Thomas Point light is a screw-pile, but it has been protected from ice through the years by tons of riprap placed around the base.
The Middleground lighthouse has withstood hurricanes, nor'easters, ice storms and the advent of GPS. In 1979 it sprang a leak in the foundation when banged by the tugboat Capt. Jim, which had lost power. Repairs were made in 1980.
Standing about five stories out of the water, the Middleground light has three floors where the keeper and assistant lived. A basement held cisterns to catch rain water, and a coal bin held fuel. No one has lived there since the light was automated in 1954.
"To take over the property, you'd have to consider that there are no utilities," Puppa said. "No water, no electricity. There's nothing."
Well, not exactly. Asbestos and lead paint may be in the Middleground lighthouse, which the government is advertising "as is" and "where is," without any guarantee or warranty.
The walls, floors and ceilings are intact. But the awning over the catwalk that encircles the lighthouse has deteriorated, Walters said, and Coast Guard engineers are trying to figure out how much work needs to be done.
"We haven't put a lot of money into that light in many years," Walters said. "It was built to have three or four people out there to maintain that light and keep it burning. If we were going to do it again today, we'd probably put something a lot simpler out there."
The Coast Guard intends to keep it working. Any adoption agreement would give the agency access to the light at any time.
But an adoption also would put the cost of maintaining the lighthouse itself on someone else. The Coast Guard budget does not include the extra money needed to maintain historic integrity.
No one has calculated how much it would cost to fix up the Middleground lighthouse or to maintain it for public use.
Since October 2001, when the General Services Administration began disposing of the Coast Guard's excess lighthouses, six have been adopted. Three more are pending. At least 300 will be transferred over eight years, according to the National Park Service.
The Middleground light is one of 13 eligible for adoption, including two in the Chesapeake Bay. Interested parties have until March 28 to respond.
"Ideally, what would work well would be a partnership of some sort for lighthouses like that, between a state and city or county and group that would be able to maintain it," Puppa said.
What if no one applies for the Middleground light?
It could be sold at auction. Then, subject to approval by historic preservation agencies, and still subject to the Coast Guard's reasonably fit, athletic members coming by to maintain the red, flashing light, the Middleground lighthouse could become a commercial property.
"If you could get out there, you'd have a very unique bed and breakfast," Puppa said. "If you've been out there on a beautiful day, blue sky and slight breeze, there's no better place to be."