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Lyons pastor involved in lighthouse restoration project

February 25, 2014 | 04:54 PM
“You are the light of the world.”

— Matthew 4:14-16

What better structure to exemplify that verse than a lighthouse?

John LaGalbo, pastor of Mt. Zion Church and director of the Mt. Zion House rehabilitation center is now a member of a nonprofit organization that owns the Milwaukee breakwater lighthouse at the entrance to Milwaukee Bay on Lake Michigan.

“My interest is from a restoration perspective,” LaGalbo said. “We’re in the business of restoring lives,” he said, referring to the Mt. Zion House.

Ownership of the lighthouse was awarded to Optima Enrichment, a nonprofit organized and headed by Brookfield philanthropist Randall Melchert by the Coast Guard, the National Park Service and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

Melchert, a doctor of optometry, is also owner of Melchert Eye Care, Brookfield.

In June 2011, the federal government declared the structure surplus.

LaGalbo said the federal government was asking $1 in cash for the structure.

But it was also asking for a lot more.

It offered ownership to any nonprofit organization able to restore and open the structure back up to the public for educational or recreational use, LaGalbo said in a recent interview.

LaGalbo said that three organizations filed for ownership of the lighthouse, Mt. Zion House, Optima Enrichment and the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee.

Melchert said an architect-consultant said renovations might cost up to $2.5 million. After a 2011 tour of the facility, UWM dropped out, saying it could not afford to rehabilitate the lighthouse.

LaGalbo said he and Melchert decided that their nonprofits should cooperate.

Optima Enrichment is fundraising to make the work possible, while LaGalbo said he’s in contact with former Mt. Zion House residents who have skills in the construction industry. Current residents in the Mt. Zion rehab program may also be asked to lend a hand in rehabbing the lighthouse.

The application process took nearly three years, LaGalbo said.

“We have to be very, very fussy as to who is getting it and how they will use the building. Michele Curran, an architectural historian for the National Park Service who coordinates historic surplus property in Wisconsin, was quoted in a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel story about the lighthouse.

LaGalbo said when the process got sticky, or additional bureaucratic hoops appeared that had to be jumped through, the National Park Service and Coast Guard encouraged the nonprofit partnership to continue through the process and persevere.

LaGalbo said he was personally determined to pursue ownership of the lighthouse.

“People said, ‘a light house, are you crazy?’ If it’s God’s plan then we’re going to be a part of it,” LaGalbo said.

The concrete-and-steel building is an impressive piece of architecture and engineering. It was built into the Milwaukee breakwater in 1926.

The breakwater stretches for 4 miles along the Milwaukee waterfront. It does not connect to land.

That means anyone who wants to go to the lighthouse has to get there by boat, Melchert said.

According to lighthousefriends.com, the structure is 61 feet tall divided into five levels and has between 4,500 and 5,000 square feet of interior space.

The light marks the entrance into the breakwater and is still in use.

The light tower will not be opened to the public.

From 1926 until 1966, the lighthouse had a live-in operator.

The two-story Art Deco keeper’s quarters, which have not been used since the light became automated in 1966, features a round cast-iron lantern room and a balcony.

Other lighthouses sold by the government have been turned into museums or cultural centers by local governments and nonprofits, Melchert and LaGalbo said

Melchert said that a renovated lighthouse would fit in with the revival of the Milwaukee downtown business district.

He said the lighthouse could provide meeting space for conferences and receptions for both corporate and charitable organizations.

Nonprofit organizations and churches would not be charged for use of the building.

Corporations and private citizens would probably have to pay to use the structure, he said.

But before visits to the lighthouse, or even renovations can begin, the new owners have to establish a regular means of reaching it.

Getting to the breakwater light means a boat ride.

And there is no jetty or dock there, yet, so mooring a vessel there is tricky, and requires visitors to climb a 30-foot ladder to the landing.

Melchert said that once renovations are completed, the nonprofit could contract with a local tour boat operation to provide regular or chartered visits to the renovated lighthouse. It was placed on the National List of Historic Places in June 2011, the Journal-Sentinel said.


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