SJ City to Consider Acquisition of Lighthouse Keepers’ Quarters on SJ River Channel

A piece of history along the St. Joseph waterfront will come under consideration tonight when St. Joseph City Commissioners debate whether or not to consider the potential acquisition of a former lighthouse keepers’ house along the St. Joseph River channel.

Inasmuch as the U.S. Coast Guard is approaching disposition of the house differently than it did when seeking to transfer ownership of the North Pier lighthouses, it might not be quite as easy for the city to take ownership without providing them with fair market value this time.

Commissioners have an item on the agenda tonight to consider how to approach the situation as another piece of the historic St. Joseph lighthouse complex is becoming available as surplus to federal government requirements.

City Manager John Hodgson says, “The Coast Guard is in the process of preparing to dispose of the property.” However, he adds, “It has not elected to dispose of the property through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, through which the City received the North Pier lighthouses at no cost, but instead has selected an alternate method under the Coast Guard Housing Authority Act. Under this method, the property is to be sold at fair market value and the proceeds used by the Coast Guard to construct new military housing.”

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According to Hodgson’s historical research, shortly after the current North Pier lighthouses were constructed in 1907, a new lighthouse keepers’ dwelling was constructed on the north side of the river. Previous to that time, the lighthouse keeper lived downtown and had to cross the river to reach the lights on the north pier. The dwelling was a duplex; one side was occupied by the lighthouse keeper, and the other side by the assistant keeper. Following the incorporation of the US Lighthouse Service into the US Coast Guard, the property, which is located at 107 North Pier Street, was used by the Coast Guard as housing until a few years ago, when it was vacated.

Hodgson tells the commission that the plot plan shows how the property is part of the overall federal presence at the St. Joseph River harbor, including the piers, lighthouses and catwalks, the keepers’ dwelling, the US Life Saving Service Station, and the US Lighthouse Depot.

In looking at the possibilities, Hodgson tells the commission, “The Coast Guard has indicated that the property is ready to begin the sale process, which would make it available to the general public, but it would be able to consider a ‘Direct Sale’ to the City.” That would require action by the City Commission, and Hodgson tells them, “In order to pursue this process, the Coast Guard requires a letter indicating that the City is interested in a Direct Sale.”

Hodgson adds, “The Coast Guard would then consider that request, and if it is willing to pursue a Direct Sale, there is a process that would be followed to walk the parties along that path, to determine the fair market value and the terms of the sale. Sending the letter would not commit the City to purchase the property, it would start a process to see if a mutually acceptable sale could be arrived upon.”

The former Lighthouse Keepers’ house has direct pedestrian access to Tiscornia Park and the base of the North Pier, via the walk along the river.

Hodgson cautions the Commission, “To be sure, we do not know what the acquisition cost or project cost might be, it might or might not prove practical or even desirable. Authorizing interest in a Direct Sale would afford the community the ability to learn the potential terms of acquisition and to learn more about the condition of the structure, potential additional costs, and how it could contribute to the educational and cultural programming of the lighthouse complex.” He also points out, “Potential costs during the exploration process would include the cost of an appraisal of the property, and perhaps a review of the structure’s condition and integrity by a historic architect. If the US Coast Guard is willing to consider a direct sale we understand we would be invited to meet to help us understand what is involved in the process.”

Based on his assessment of the situation, the City Manger asks the Commission to consider authorizing him to provide to the US Coast Guard a written expression of interest in pursuing a direct sale under the Coast Guard’s Housing Authority Act, of the historic lighthouse keepers’ dwelling at 107 North Pier Street.