YORK, Maine — Visitors to the Nubble these days will see some recent changes on the Cape Neddick Light Station island. Scaffolding surrounded by green netting has been erected on the north side of the keeper’s house, the most obvious sign of the restoration and rehabilitation work that started last month and is expected to continue throughout the summer months.
Already, the crew of restoration specialist JB Leslie Co. has had to contend with high seas and inclement weather that made for some treacherous passages across the “gut” separating the mainland from the island. But it’s hoped with the glorious weather ushered in last week that the last of winter has gone away.
Jim Leslie, the owner of JB Leslie, said for him, the work at the Nubble is a dream come true. Over the years, he and his crew have done restoration work at 20 lighthouses, including Whaleback and Boon Island Lights in the Seacoast and as far north as Monhegan, Maine. Although his home and business are in South Berwick, he grew up in York and the Nubble has always been an important part of life here.
“This is definitely at the top of the list for me,” he said. “I’ve worked on lighthouses up and down the coast, but this is a big deal for me personally. I never thought I would get to work on this one.”
The current work is being completed in two phases. Phase 1 involves exterior work to the keeper’s house, the connector building to the lighthouse, the red generator building and the small white keeper’s workshop. On the house, work involves replacing and repairing wood that is rotten or damaged, remaking trim work where necessary, repairing and replacing the gutters, and repairing the foundation. The remaining buildings will be repaired and repainted as well.
Leslie was awarded a $103,000 contract for that work last February, with funds already approved by voters and coming from the proceeds of the Sohier Park Gift Shop. Phase 2 will involve removing the old paint and repainting the lighthouse itself, which is made of cast iron with a brick interior, replacing or repairing the railing around the light, and doing some interior work at the workshop building.
Funding for Phase 2 will also come from gift store revenues, but must be approved by voters first. Article 59 on the May 19 ballot seeks the $135,000 for the work. JB Leslie bid on both phases at the same time, and that portion of the work will be awarded immediately after the vote if successful.
On the day the Weekly made a visit to the island, workers were replacing the trim work along the roof line on the north side. The original gingerbread-style trim was too rotten to repair, so an exact replica of cedar was made at the company shop and brought across the water to be installed.
Leslie said because the light station, built in 1879, is on the National Register of Historic Places, all work first has to pass muster with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. In 2017, the town commissioned Groundroot Preservation Group of York to conduct an exterior condition assessment. The report, which detailed widespread issues associated with “exposure to the saline marine environment,” was sent to the MHPC for its approval before work could begin.
“This is very different from a regular carpentry job,” said Leslie. “The Maine Historic Preservation Commission has the final say. They want to see the original remain if at all possible and if it has to be replaced, it has to be replaced with the same wood.” Wood used on the buildings include pine, fir and cedar, he said.
For the foundation work, Leslie had an interesting story to relate. He said that up until the 1920s, foundations were built using “natural cement” derived from limestone. Soon thereafter the less expensive Portland cement became the cement of choice and by the 70s natural cement was no longer being manufactured, he said. However, not long ago one company began making natural cement again, primarily for historic restoration work, said Leslie. Now it is being used on everything from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Capitol Building — and the Nubble Light keeper’s house.
The crew is at the mercy of Mother Nature, obviously. Everything has to be carted across the gut, including all the scaffolding that will be used as work progresses. A tram between the mainland and the island will hold a maximum of 400 pounds, and the crew has also rigged some chains to which items can be attached and brought over via the pulley system. In addition, the company owns a number of inflatable boats that are used to cart material.
“This is a tough spot,” said Leslie. “You get wet every single day. So you have to have people who know what they’re doing. We lost five days in April, simply because it was impossible to get across.”
Eventually, the scaffolding will have to move to the front of the house, directly facing the Nubble parking lot and the throngs of visitors who are drawn to the spot every summer. “I’m sure whenever we do that, we’re going to hear about it,” said Leslie. But Parks and Recreation Director Mike Sullivan said “I’m probably not going to lose sleep over it.
“You can’t tell how bad it is unless you’re out here. You don’t see the necessity” from the mainland, said Sullivan.
“Maintenance is something we all have to do to keep our properties in shape, and winter isn’t the time to do this work,” said Selectman Todd Frederick.
The fact is, he said, “Nubble Light” is on the town seal and “people identify York with this lighthouse. Even when you think of Maine, you think of this place. It’s important that it be maintained for the next generation.”
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