Friday, July 17, 2015

The Lure of Faux Lighthouses

Yesterday was  the 90th birthday of a friend in the lighthouse community, a man named Bob I've never met in person but I feel I know almost as well as any face-to-face friend. He's an email and Facebook "friend." I regularly correspond with his wife, Sandra, when I need pictures or information about lighthouses the couple has visited. They've traveled to and photographed all the existing lighthouses in the United States, they say, and have seen a number of sentinels outside the country. Recently, Sandra sent a picture of Bob sitting on a chair in the couple's front yard, putting up the American flag. It was the Fourth of July. She asked if friends could send birthday cards. Her goal was for Bob to receive 90 cards by his landmark 90th birthday. I think he did!

Next to the flagpole in the picture of Bob is the decorative lighthouse he built some years ago. He keeps it painted nicely, and it has a beacon that he turns on for special occasions. His lighthouse--and lighthouses like it---are the subject of my blog today--faux lighthouses.
Faux (pronounced like "foe") means fake, false, phony, an imitation. In the case of lighthouses, faux lighthouses might be defined as those not listed as navigational aids in the official Coast Guard Light List.  You could call them unofficial lighthouses. They weren't built by the old U.S. Lighthouse Establishment or the U.S. Coast Guard, mariners often don’t know about them or use them, and they seldom appear in lighthouse books and history books.

Usually they stand on private lawns, in playgrounds and parks, or are built by businesses such as marinas, restaurants, gift shops, campgrounds, theme parks....  The list is long. Bob and Sandra’s lighthouse is sort of a metaphor for all the work they’ve done over the years to preserve “real” lighthouses in pictures and books. It’s a testament to their love for lighthouses. Some faux lighthouses memorialize something or someone.

Metaphors are strong in faux lighthouses too. "Lighthouse for the Blind" not only purports to show the way for those without physical sight, but it also represents itself with a lighthouse.  Below is Bruce Robie's photo of the old Lighthouse for the Blind building in New Orleans.

Purists in the lighthouse community often dismiss faux lighthouses. I'm not among them. Yes, I agree fake lighthouses aren't official navigational aids, and for many years I did not include them in my guidebooks. But I do like them, and with so many books now in print about official lighthouses I've begun including faux lights in my books. People love to hunt for them and take pictures of them. They like the various designs for them. They love their stories. I've never been on a lighthouse tour where group members didn't like faux lighthouses. Pass one without pulling over for a picture and some admiring looks, and someone will yell "Stop!"


The stories are usually fascinating, often heartwarming, and sometimes funny. No, they aren't the dramatic historic tales I've related in my books about real lighthouses. Nonetheless, there are reasons why faux lighthouses are built and there is meaning attached to them. I think this is the reason I like them. There’s always a story surrounding a faux lighthouse.

Last year I published a book on the lighthouses of Pennsylvania. Some eyebrows raised. Pennsylvania? There are official lighthouses in the Quaker State...a few of them on Lake Erie and around Philadelphia....but also there are many, many faux lights. The leaning faux lighthouse above fascinated me for a number of reasons, not the least being its presence in a Pennsylvania community where I lived from 1963-1972. I passed it many times in my little Volkswagon Beetle, long before I became interested in lighthouses. In summer, the cattails and duckweed surrounded it; in winter snow piled up on its cupola and its base was iced in. Sometimes people would ice skate around it and pose for pictures. From time to time, someone painted it or did repairs. I never thought much about it after I was married and left the area.

Then, a couple of years ago, I received an email through my website from a man named Ryan Brown who lived in Limerick, Pennsylvania. He had purchased the property on which the lighthouse sat in its small lake and wanted to know if I had any history of it. I didn’t, but I was excited to tell him I knew that lighthouse from my youth. I was interested in what he might discover and asked him to remain in touch with me. After all, it was a memory from my youth, a faux lighthouse I had driven by hundreds of times.

Ryan got back in touch a few weeks later and said the local historical society had given him some images and information. I examined the images closely and began a search online for anything that looked similar. After a few days, I hit pay dirt! On eBay I found an image from about 1925-1930 of a faux lighthouse at a small lake resort in southeastern Pennsylvania. The seller said she had bought a lot of old photo albums in the Pottstown area, not far from Limerick. I couldn't be sure, but it really did look like the faux lighthouse Ryan owns. I don't know the identity of those women in the image below, clinging to the base of the lighthouse, but they definitely look as if they were having fun.

I’ll excerpt a profile of this lighthouse. I’ve named the Landis Creek Lighthouse. The excerpt is from my eBook, Itty Bitty Kitty Guide to the Lighthouses of Pennsylvania:

In 1915, Aldes J. Bernhardt purchased land from the Hunsicker family in the small community of Limerick, Pennsylvania, about 40-miles northwest of Philadelphia. Bernhardt created a large pond on his new property by building a small dam on Landis Creek. After this, he opened a summer camp at the pond. The hot, humid days at the popular camp were made more fun with a faux lighthouse Bernhardt built on a rock foundation in the pond.

The camp closed many years ago after the property was sold into private hands, and the lighthouse deteriorated. It was a bit of an eyesore back when the author lived in the area in the 1960s. The present owner, Ryan Brown, is researching the history of the property and is planning to refurbish the lighthouse, which is in bad shape. Very little is known about it, and Brown is anxious for information.

The recent photo that follows, courtesy of Ryan Brown, shows what remains of the lighthouse. The rock foundation of the lighthouse appears to be overgrown. The tower was leaning precariously and had no door until Brown made it level and added a temporary door. Inside are traditional spiral stairs. This small decorative sentinel is a little treasure from Limerick’s past and deserves preservation. Contact Ryan Brown at if you have additional information or old pictures of this lighthouse, or you’d like to help with refurbishment and preservation efforts.
Ryan, is indeed, intent on fixing up this little fake lighthouse and learning/preserving its story from beginning to present. He sent me the image above after he straightened the lighthouse and stabilized it with 2x4s. Behind it is the road I used to drive as teenager before I left the Limerick area.

I salute Ryan for his effort. As with any lighthouse, this one is part of a community. It deserves to be researched and saved. It has a history, one bound up in the aura of most lighthouses—real or fake. Someone took the time to build it and keep it painted and in good shape. It is remembered fondly, and people have memories of their experiences with it. They cared enough to take pictures of it when it was part of a water resort. They still take pictures of it. And like me, they remember it as being part of my neighborhood for many years.

With that in mind, here’s a short selection of the many faux lighthouses I've discovered in my lighthouse travels. I could post hundreds of pictures here. Maybe you have some too. Enjoy them, and know that they have meaning for someone, somewhere….which makes them important.



No comments:

Post a Comment

I welcome your comments, photos, stories, etc.!