Split Rock gets a faceliftby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Split Rock Lighthouse has withstood everything Lake Superior could throw at it for almost a century. Now, just short of the landmark's centennial, this popular North Shore attraction is getting a badly needed facelift.
Lake Superior, Minn. — It's a warm and calm July afternoon at the lighthouse, 130 feet above Lake Superior's blue waves. The lighthouse and its grounds are getting the first big restoration work here in more than a decade.
"We're working on finishing up the storage barns here, getting fresh coats of paint. Bad wood's being replaced," said Lee Radzak, historic site manager for the Minnesota Historical Society.
Work is focused on much of the complex, including homes built for the lighthouse keeper and assistants, a foghorn building, and the lighthouse itself.
A crew is swarming over the exterior of three of the fawn-colored brick homes. The lake's notoriously bad weather has beaten through the window seals, mortar, and wood siding.
"When we get a northeaster here -- a storm off the lake and you get 50, 60 mile an hour winds for a couple of days -- it'll drive the rain or snow or sleet into any of this wood or brick or concrete, and it's tough to keep that moisture out of the buildings," Radzak said.
"What Nick's doing is replacing the rotted wood around the bases and around the sides," Radzak continued. "And they're doing it, other than the power equipment, the way it would have been done 100 years ago."
Nick is Nicholas Olson, who works for a Superior, Wis., construction company.
"The biggest challenge is just trying to make everything historically accurate," Olson explained. "There's thousands of people seeing this every year, so, it makes it interesting. You definitely have to have pride in what you're doing to make it look good. It makes a difference."
Split Rock last saw restoration in the early 1990s, and Lee Radzak said this project is critical.
"On the north sides of these brick buildings there was bowing going on, the walls were starting to bulge outward. So what we did was stabilize the walls, tuck-pointed, repointed the mortar on the bricks, found a way to hold the walls in place and seal that," Radzak said.
The 54-foot lighthouse spent the spring encapsulated in scaffolding. Its metal top was cleaned and repainted. Each of the 27 curved windows were carefully removed, and their brass frames restored and resealed. The scaffolding came down just in time for the summer tourist season.
Thousands of Minnesotans are captivated by Split Rock Lighthouse and its historic ties to the state's maritime history.
That's certainly the case for Melissa Brettingen of St. Louis Park, who's here with her husband and two children.
"This was one of the first things my family visited when I was about 7 or 8 years old," said Brettingen. "We did Glensheen in Duluth and then came up to Split Rock Lighthouse. I had a charm bracelet that I got that year, and the first charm that I ever bought was for Split Rock Lighthouse."
Site manager Radzak said Split Rock is unique among the nation's lighthouses.
"A lot of lighthouses, light stations, over time, different buildings were torn down and new buildings added as needs changed. So Split Rock is pretty unique in that all the buildings date from the same time period. They're all original structures," Radzak said. "No new structures have been added -- no major structures. So it looks virtually the way it did when it was built in 1909, and when it was first lit on July 31 of 1910."
But there is something missing, even as a loud two-tone burst erupts from the foghorn building. The original foghorn is long gone, so they've rigged up a pretty convincing digital recording.
Split Rock Lighthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places. Soon, it's expected to be a National Historic Landmark, along with one other Great Lakes lighthouse on that prestigious list: Lake Michigan's Grosse Point lighthouse.
For Lee Radzak, Split Rock is home, where he gets a lot of company -- about 100,000 visitors a year.
This phase of restoration should be done later this month, but there's more work scheduled for next year, and a birthday party planned in 2010.
- Morning Edition, 07/07/2008, 7:25 a.m.