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Lighthouse to become museum?

Alexander Sinn • Nov 3, 2018 at 10:00 AM

The south pier lighthouse was once instrumental to getting ships safely in and out of port in Grand Haven.

It has long been occupied by spiders and their cobwebs, but city leaders have their sights on turning the former foghouse building into a museum to interpret the lighthouse’s history.

The city of Grand Haven is seeking grant funding this winter to hire a planner to assess the cost of modifying the facility for a public museum.

A museum would likely be run in summer months, City Manager Pat McGinnis said. The wind, waves and ice that pummel the pier would make it unsuitable for housing true historical artifacts, he said, but replicas could be housed in the building without insulation.

The city, if the project is pursued, will plan forums for gather public input. The building has electricity, but does not have sewer or water hookups, and such improvements would be costly, McGinnis said, and not entirely necessary for a museum.

The lighthouse has seen worse days, McGinnis said. The city previously removed lead paint from the exterior and repainted it. Nine new windows were recently added around the exterior, which he said are tested to withstand hammer blows.

The current iteration of the lighthouse is intended to resemble its condition in 1931, McGinnis said. Historical accuracy is ensured by the National Parks Service and state of Michigan Historical Preservation Office, he said.

“(The Parks Service and Historical Preservation Office) can be kind of onerous, and we’re OK with that because we want them to be properly, historically preserved,” McGinnis said. “We don’t want anybody turning them into a big, sad fish.”

The city of Grand Haven acquired the lighthouse from the U.S. government in 2009, preventing PETA -- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -- from purchasing the lighthouse and turning it into a “Fish Empathy” center, where the national group proposed selling faux fish sticks and encouraging people not to catch and eat fish.

Several organizations convened to form the Grand Haven Lighthouse Conservancy, which could eventually take ownership of the lighthouse, McGinnis said.

Stakeholders have been excited about opening the lighthouse to the public, McGinnis said, and funding will help the city set realistic goals.

“There’s a lot of intense, inspired call to action, but not a real clear definition of exactly what we’re going to do and what it’s going to cost,” he said. “I think it’s good to take a deep breath.”

Julie Bunke, director of the Tri-Cities Historical Museum in Grand Haven, said a museum would help connect those learning the lighthouse’s history with the real place.

“It would complement our museum nicely,” Bunke said. “So many people ask questions about the lighthouse and want to know more about the history. That would be a great first-hand experience for people to be able to see the lighthouse, to actually be able to go inside and get some more history that way.”

McGinnis said the south pier catwalk, which was removed during a pier reconstruction project that finished in August, could also be offered to the Lighthouse Conservancy once it is installed this spring.

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