The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Others saw a rusty old lighthouse. This man saw opportunity.

Richard Cucé, a father of four from Pennsylvania, decided to use his life savings to try and rescue the Hooper Island Lighthouse

Richard Cucé, 52, holds a miniature of the Hooper Island Lighthouse, which he purchased in September for $192,000.
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There is no electricity or running water. Birds have flown inside and died. There are hazardous materials like lead-based paint, asbestos and benzene. It can’t be used as a home. And it’s in a Navy-controlled “danger area.”

But to Richard Cucé, it is perfect.

Cucé, a divorced father of four who lives on a 25-acre farm in Pennsylvania, works as a painter, plays in a band and is a yoga instructor, decided to use his life savings to rescue a Chesapeake Bay lighthouse.

“I had people tell me that I was gonna lose all my money investing in this and trying to make it happen. And my uncle told me lighthouses are going to ruin my life,” he said. “It’s turning out to really make my life more meaningful.”

While others mocked the lack of amenities at the Hooper Island Lighthouse, Cucé saw beauty and opportunity.

He purchased the lighthouse for $192,000 in September, and now that the deeds have been signed, he’s ready to tell the public his big ideas. A documentary series. Specialty beer. Destination weddings. “Feeling rusty, might delete later,” he wrote on the new Facebook page he created for the lighthouse, which he nicknamed “Sparky.”

His mission: “Restore the Lighthouse, Restore the Bay.” He hopes to turn it into an environmental center where people can learn more about the Chesapeake Bay and its wildlife. He plans to film and share every step of the process, including on the lighthouse’s Facebook page.

It is not an investment, he said, but rather part of a yet-to-be-created nonprofit that would fund and support the lighthouse restoration and upkeep. And he is giving up his hobbies to see this through.

A Chesapeake Bay lighthouse is up for auction. So far, no one has bid on it.

“I’m not a rich guy, but enough that I sold one of my investment properties to buy this, and I’m selling more to pay for the restoration. And you know, it’ll have value when I fix it up,” Cucé said.

“I’m not looking to make money off of it. I’m at a point in my life where I’m just looking for something more meaningful than just another investment property or making a little bit more money.”

Cucé (pronounced Ku-Chay), the 52-year-old owner of Blastco, a blast cleaning and industrial painting service company in Quakertown, Pa., spent his 28-year career blasting and painting trucks and trailers, in addition to more unique structures such as a log flume ride at an amusement park and a rapper’s tour bus.

By fall of 2021, the youngest of his four children finally went off to college, and he was an empty nester searching for a challenge — something more meaningful than his usual projects.

He had rarely been on boats and did not own one himself, but fixated on a new idea that would take him out into the water to a remote location.

Cucé saw the U.S. General Services Administration had opened a public auction in February for three Florida lighthouses. But soon, the price was out of reach, with one selling for $860,000.

Then he saw the auction for the Hooper Island Lighthouse, affectionately called the “sparkplug” by locals, in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, three to four miles west of Middle Hooper Island, in Maryland’s Dorchester County.

The federal government had put the lighthouse up for auction last year because its previous owner, the U.S. Lighthouse Society — an organization with more than 3,000 members — had long struggled to maintain it.

Cucé’s kids knew this interest wasn’t a phase for their father, who loves the environment, history and unique projects.

Cucé has been investing in and working on unique properties most of his life, including building his current home — a 200-year-old timber frame barn attached to a stone farmhouse.

“He’s very passionate about it, and it kind of falls in line with restoring and with environmental awareness and all those kinds of things that he likes,” said his son, Thomas Cucé.

The Hooper Island Lighthouse is different than all these other projects. For one, it isn’t on land. The lighthouse, built in 1902, is in the middle of the bay, which means the new owner would need a boat to get out there. Cucé did not have a boat and did not know how to use one.

Its metal tower is atop a cylindrical platform, so there is no dock at which a boat can moor. This means the owner and any visitors would need to tie the boat to the lighthouse’s outer ladder and climb up while teetering on rocking waves.

“There’s nothing like a metal building that’s out in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, miles from anything. It seems so beautiful and serene. And such a challenge,” he said. “I feel like I’ve done just about everything that can be blasted and painted, honestly, and this is a real challenge that I want to take on.”

Cucé knows restoring it while it remains a working lighthouse for the U.S. Coast Guard will be complicated.

Cucé is legally required to maintain it in accordance with specific preservation standards because the lighthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places and any change to the exterior must be approved by the Maryland Historical Trust. All of Cucé’s restoration work will need to be communicated to the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) of the Navy. The lighthouse is in the northeast corner of a “surface danger zone,” meaning it’s within the test range where the Navy can release nonexplosive ordnance such as practice bombs, inert missiles and rockets from aircraft.

None of this scares Cucé, whose life’s work includes making unique properties rustproof. He knew this would be a “labor of love.”

“When someone sees how it’s a little dilapidated and broken down, that’s not intimidating,” said his son Dominic Cucé, 29. “We’ll just go about it like any other job.”

Still, the elder Cucé had his doubts.

Chesapeake Bay lighthouse sold for $192,000 after surprise bidding war

After he bought the lighthouse, he read a Washington Post story where commenters mocked the purchase. One wrote: “Why would anyone ever buy that?”

Every now and then, Cucé wakes up and thinks: “What am I getting myself into? How am I going to pay for it?”

Nonetheless, he is embracing his new project.

There are miniature reproductions of the Hooper Island Lighthouse in his Pennsylvania painting service shop. He had a blueprint of the Hooper Island Lighthouse on the wall in his foyer when the family came over for Christmas. Someone recently came into the shop with a box full of random lighthouse figurines.

“We’re trying to do work around the business, and it’s all lighthouse all the time now,” said his daughter, Tori Cucé, 28. “Not only us talking about it, people are calling to talk about it, but it’s just constantly: Dad’s running around, getting other people involved, and people coming in and out of the shop talking about it.”

For now, he keeps adding to his always-growing to-do list.

The first thing he did after buying the lighthouse was purchase a boat, which he nicknamed Hopper after fielding suggestions from Sparky’s new Facebook fans. Learning to use it is next. So far, he said, he drove it once in a Pennsylvania lake and “didn’t die.”

Now he needs to find someone who can build a dock so equipment and people, including himself and those with disabilities, can actually get there. He’ll need to seal up openings where water is getting in and damaging the property. And he needs a captain’s license to be able to give tours. The exteriors have to be “completely blasted” and covered with an industrial marine primer, mid coat and top coat, he said. He plans to finish the heavy lifting of restoration by the end of this year.

The more Cucé talks about the restoration process — an arduous and expensive undertaking — the more excited he sounds.

“I could bore you to death with that process,” he said before quickly adding, “we are going to use an industrial laser to strip it, which is going to be really cool.”

He’ll sell T-shirts. He wants to ask a local brewery to make Hooper Island Lighthouse beer, or find someone to make wine. “The bottles will be shaped like lighthouses,” he imagines, with proceeds going to his yet-to-be-created foundation. He wants to launch an educational YouTube series and hopes to one day have enough followers to pay the bills so he can work on the lighthouse full-time.

He also wants to write a children’s book about “Sparky’s life story of being a glorious lighthouse and then being abandoned and neglected and almost forgotten before some people come along and save Sparky and give him a new purpose as an environmental center where he and Hopper work to help save the Chesapeake Bay and the animals that call it home 😂,” Cucé said in a message to The Post detailing the ideas he had come up with in the days after an interview.

“I don’t care if I have to dress up like a Lightkeeper from 1910 and tells ghost stories,” he said, adding that he does not actually know any ghost stories. “There are people who are crazy about lighthouses like me, and they’re reaching out to me, they message me every day and they say, ‘Look, I’m a lighthouse nut too.’”

He can barely sleep, his mind racing with possibilities. He often wakes up in the middle of the night, turns to the notebook on his bedside table and jots down his latest lighthouse idea.