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Montauk Lighthouse: Welcome to Long Island’s Easternmost Home

12/26/2021
Mtk Light From Water

The Montauk Lighthouse at "The End" of Long Island Photo: A. Feil

The buzz words of real estate listings are the stuff of a particular poetry. Historic home. One-of-a-kind property. Endless water views. Exclusive East End.

Well, it doesn’t get any more historic or East End than here, and the water views from this one-of-a-kind place, well, let’s just say they redefine the term. Call it The End. Call it the oldest lighthouse in New York State. Montauk Lighthouse keeper Joe Gaviola calls it home.

Mtk Light Joe Gaviola

Keeper Joe Gaviola welcomes you to the Montauk LighthouserCourtesy Joe Gaviola / Montauk Historical Society

“The air is clean, it’s fresh, it’s salty. It’s nature at its rugged best and most beautiful. To see the sunrise in the morning and then these sunsets, it’s just fabulous,” Gaviola raves, sitting inside the keeper’s quarters on a crisp, sunny day. “To look out and see the Atlantic Ocean, Block Island Sound, the Long Island Sound, all from your property? I appreciate it, I feel honored.”

And as the inhabitant of Long Island’s easternmost residence, one of only a handful of people who’ve call the lighthouse home since George Washington commissioned it, part of a rare legacy.

“I’m here for a short period of time in the history of this place since 1796,” he says. “The keeper’s role is a lot different than the days of the old guys who carried whale oil and kerosene to the top of the lighthouse. It’s more of a supervising the site, an ambassadorship, raising funds, looking after the property, which is so important to all of Long Island.”

Ambassador seems an ideal role for the affable Gaviola, who joined the Montauk Historical Society board in the 1990s and has been instrumental in recent efforts to helping drive the $1.5 million restoration of the lighthouse tower. “It’s the most extensive restoration since 1860,” says Gaviola, who works in finance as his day job. “The tower was built in 1796, in 1860 they increased the height of it a little bit to get a different lens up in there, so here we are, 160 years later, and we undertook the task.”

Given the historic nature and the unique weather conditions the tower has endured over the centuries, “there was no encyclopedia to look at to see where to even start the project,” Gaviola says. After conducting studies to address specific needs and create a process to preserve and restore the historic integrity, the project that began in 2018 should be complete in 2022. That’s four years, but some things cannot be rushed.

“We are a National Historic Landmark, so we really have to be careful what we do there,” he adds. “We’re the oldest lighthouse in New York, fourth oldest in the country. We’re the symbol of Long Island.”

That sense of stewardship runs deep through the Montauk community and the Historical Society, which began leasing the property from the Coast Guard in 1987 as it was cutting budgets and staffing while electrifying and automating lights all across America. “We did such a good job that the federal government agreed to sell it to us in 1994 for what I call a dollar and a dream,” Gaviola says. “But with that came all the maintenance of it. We don’t get a penny from any governmental agency. This is still an active federal aid to navigation, so the two things the Coast Guard is still responsible for are the light itself and the fog signal. Everything else, we pay for.”

RELATED: THE LIGHTS AT THE MONTAUK LIGHTHOUSE

That includes upgrades and restoration to the spaces in which Gaviola lives, sleeps and works. “The community has been so wonderful that we are looking to expand it to this 1860 Building that I’m in, in the keeper’s residence. We’re re-shingling, re-roofing, and making it look like the original Coast Guard station. We’re in the process of doing that right now.”

The original Douglas fir floors underfoot and age-old wood beams above, the cozy brick fireplaces filling the expanse in between—the quarters are a picture of charm. When he first moved in, however, the residence hadn’t had an upgrade since the Coast Guard had it in 1962. “The cabinetry, the Formica, rugs here forever, and we needed to bring it up to electrical code, plumbing code, all kinds of things,” Gaviola says. “So basically for a year I lived in a trailer, and then in the basement when it got cold. I had 20 suits hanging on a copper pipe. And there’s no bathroom down there. So the first year was challenging.”

It was certainly different from his first Montauk home. Gaviola grew up in Dix Hills, and “in 1967 we made our first trip out here as a family, and my whole family fell in love with it,” he tells. “We loved to fish, and Montauk was really different back then. My family built a summer home here in 1974, on the lake—it was a New York Times House of the Week, a beautiful home.”

He started working at the world famous Gosman’s around age 15, then on the charter boats—even while in college at the University of Rhode Island, he came back on weekends to work on the fishing boats and go surfcasting in the shadow of the lighthouse, eventually becoming a world-class shark fisherman as well. “Even to this day I’m reminded of those wonderful days, fishing off the lighthouse with my father. I’ve always loved it.”

So when Marge Winski, who had been the keeper since 1987, started to hint a few years ago that that she was thinking of retiring and moving to Maine, Gaviola saw fate extending a hand.

“I said to the board, ‘If Marge leaves, I’d be honored to go in there,” he recalls. “My children were gone, I was divorced and single, and I got it in my head that this was a wonderful next step. So I did it, then COVID hits. I went to work for Bank of America Merrill Lynch at the end of February 2020, and my office was in Southampton. I think I was there two weeks when we closed our offices and were sent home. But I couldn’t imagine a better work-from-home office than being right here.”

Before Winski left, Gaviola asked her if she had any experiences to share, any advice. “And she said, ‘Yes, never go in the attic or the basement after dark.’ I said, What? And she said, ‘Well, we have a ghost, her name is Abigail, and I would never go in the attic or the basement after dark.’

“So yes, we have a ghost. We have a painting of her downstairs, and I get teased by everyone—Have you seen Abigail? I’ve had a couple experiences where I’ve heard voices and I can’t figure it out, or things have happened where you kind of go and dive your head under the pillow. Now, there’s no such thing as ghosts, but you’re up here by yourself and these things run through your head.”

More frightening, perhaps, is what Gaviola has actually seen at the top of the tower, inside the dome during hurricanes and blizzards. “It is scary,” he admits. “It’s so loud as the wind comes whipping by this turret, you can hardly hear yourself speak. You’re surrounded by glass, and you get this feeling—even though the glass has been there forever—that if one of those panes blows in and hits you, you’re in Connecticut.”

He chuckles at this. “It’s not for everyone. The weather, the elements. I love that, but it can be tough, brutal in winter, and it is isolated.”

That is not to say, however, that Gaviola is always alone. Hardly. The lighthouse gets some 100,000 visitors a year on property, and about 1.4 million drive by annually. “Something that surprised me is how many people, 365 days a year, at all hours, are coming here to take pictures of the lighthouse. It’s unbelievable. It never ends. For some reason they’re attracted to the end, or the beginning—whichever way you want to call it here.”

He pauses on a thought, one he’s clearly had before but that somehow seems new when he speaks it. “So not only is it special for me, it’s special to everyone.”

Learn and see more from The End at montauklighthouse.org.