To historic preservationists, the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse was a tempting fixer-upper.
The 129-year-old tower can be found on calendars and posters as an icon of the Chesapeake Bay. It is also one of the last remaining bay lighthouses built in the distinctive "screwpile" style -- so called because its pilings are screwed into the muddy bottom.
Its location, about 11/2 miles off shore and just a short boat ride south from Annapolis, makes it a potential magnet for tourism.
For those reasons, a public-private partnership that includes the city of Annapolis, Anne Arundel County, the Annapolis Maritime Museum and the U.S. Lighthouse Society recently jumped at the chance to take over the lighthouse and restore it. The U.S. Department of the Interior transferred the lighthouse to the Lighthouse Society's control May 1 in a ceremony at Annapolis's City Dock.
Over the next decade, more of the bay's 30-plus lighthouses, including more than a dozen in Maryland, could also change hands.
The National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, passed in 2000, allows the federal government to give away about 300 of the country's lighthouses to groups willing to restore and open them to the public.
If no qualified parties are interested, federal officials say, some of the lighthouses might be sold. The buyers would still have to renovate them but would not be required to open them to visitors.
The lights themselves -- all the ones along the Chesapeake are automated now and without resident keepers -- will still shine. They will be maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard, even after the houses underneath are transferred to new owners.
Federal officials said the idea is to free the Coast Guard, which is strapped with homeland security responsibilities, from having to pay for the buildings' upkeep.
"They just don't have millions and millions of dollars to spend on historic preservation," said Dan Smith, a lighthouse expert for the U.S. Department of the Interior.
More than 20 lighthouses have been offered, including the Newport News Middle Ground Light in Hampton Roads, Va., and two in Maryland: the Craighill Channel Lower Range Light, near Baltimore Harbor, and Thomas Point.
Ownership of the Cove Point Lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay in Calvert County was transferred to the Calvert Marine Museum in October 2000 under a similar cooperative program involving the Coast Guard and the National Park Service.
Preservationists said Thomas Point, which looks sort of like a Hobbit's cottage on stilts, is the prize.
"Thomas Point is the most recognized lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay," said Henry Gonzalez, president of the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society.
Now that Thomas Point has been signed over, the Lighthouse Society said it plans to spend three to five years and $300,000 on renovations. Possibly beginning next summer, the society said, visitors to the Annapolis Maritime Museum will be able to take a boat to the lighthouse.
Smith, the Interior Department lighthouse expert, said the federal government uses the Thomas Point lighthouse as a case study, telling other local groups to follow this example of a public-private partnership.
"That is the best story in the country," he said.
But can it be repeated in Maryland?
Gonzalez said he has high hopes for other lights. Some of the towers are on land, not in the water, which would help both renovators and visitors.
A more daunting challenge comes from the 12 lighthouses with a "caisson" design. These are essentially tall metal tubes set in the water. Some are not very accessible, with only a ladder running up the outside.
Bloody Point Bar Light, a caisson lighthouse built in 1882 off the southern tip of Kent Island on the Eastern Shore, has already provided a lesson in how daunting a project these could be.
In 1960, an electrical fire spread to the lighthouse's propane tanks, causing a huge explosion. The two Coast Guard keepers escaped in a motorboat just ahead of the flames.
The light was later automated, but its insides were never fixed. It was left as an empty metal shell.
Last year, Queen Anne's County officials wanted to see how difficult it would be to restore the 122-year-old lighthouse. They ventured out in a boat and found there was not even a ladder -- it had apparently rusted and fallen into the water.
On April 20, the county's Board of Commissioners voted unanimously not to pursue the idea.
"In the condition that it's in now, it's not . . . worth even visiting," said Greg Todd, an official with the county's Parks and Recreation Department.
Still, federal officials and preservation groups are hopeful that the romance of lighthouses will interest people even in these more difficult projects.
"They're architecturally important. They're maritime-history important," Smith said. "Lives are saved because of them. And all of that factors into why people love lighthouses."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.