[Interview] Dave McNally, Restorer (and Resident) of Smith Point Lighthouse

Posted on: July 19th, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment

Written by Laura Wainman, Preservation Magazine intern

As a young boy, Dave McNally dreamed of living in a lighthouse. He wanted to wake up to the sunrise over the water every morning and watch it set in the evenings from the comfort of his home. And in October 2005, his wish came true, with $185,000 -- and a little help from Google.

After scouring eBay for lighthouses to purchase and coming up empty-handed, McNally Googled "lighthouses for sale."

"Right away, four popped up. They were the first four under the [National Historic Lighthouse] Preservation Act, and I bought mine in an online auction, sight unseen," says McNally.

McNally purchased Smith Point Lighthouse, a 60-foot structure made of cast iron and brick three miles off the Virginia shore on the Chesapeake Bay. Built in 1897, the current caisson structure was preceded by four lighthouses and several floating lightships, dating back to an 1802 version of an iron frame tower.

Though the Coast Guard still maintains access to the lantern room on the fourth floor, McNally was an early pioneer of renovating historic lighthouses and turning them into residential dwellings.

At the time he was one of only a handful people to privately own a lighthouse, and his plan was to turn Smith Point into a family getaway. Smith Point is now a four-bedroom, one-bath home that is currently on the market for $600,000.

We recently caught up with McNally to learn what life at a lighthouse is like, how he went about renovating Smith Point, and why he put his dream house on the market.

What restoration work was needed when you bought Smith Point?

Everything. The entire interior needed to be re-done and everything, except the brick and cast iron casing, on the exterior needed to be replaced.

Was this your first historical restoration?

No. As a contractor in Minnesota, I have restored five or six historical buildings, but this was the first time I worked with the historical preservation folks myself. Usually someone does that for me.

What is the difference between renovating a historical property versus any other building?

On regular projects, there is no one telling me what I can and can't do. I had to submit my plans three times before they were accepted, and I think they were each about 30 pages. It was a process. But I take great pride in restoring old buildings. The first thing I do on any historical project is visit the local preservation society to see if I can get a photo of the original structure. Then I do my best to get it looking like itself again using modern materials.

What were the issues with your proposals?

The windows were the big hold-up. They wanted the originals to be kept, but once I detailed each window they realized that it was impossible. They eventually let me hurricane-proof them. The front door was another gray area, because they thought it was an original and we knew it wasn't. It was just a big, rusty steel door that needed to be replaced. I went all the way to Chicago to make an exact replica of the original, three and half inches thick. It cost me $6,000 just for the front door.

What was the biggest challenge in renovating Smith Point?

It was really just the logistics of getting materials to Virginia when I was in Minnesota. We got out there about five or six times a year, and some days it would just be too rough to do any work. Being a Minnesota boy, the roughest waters I was used to were a little Mississippi River chops, and here I was facing 4-foot swells in the Chesapeake. The worst I dealt with was a 28-foot wave hitting a window on the first floor while I was in the lighthouse. You get braver as time goes on, though.

Why are you selling the lighthouse now?

Grandbabies. My oldest daughter just has her first child, and I'm hoping for more. She notified me that there was no chance she would bring the baby there until he was much older. So I need a family getaway that is safe for my family.

If you had to do the whole thing again, would you?

Absolutely, yes. I had a blast.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

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One Response

  1. Lesa Lorusso

    July 23, 2012

    This is a great article. I love the creative reuse of the lighthouse as a family dwelling. Here at the Florida Historical Society, we recently wrote a blog article about the history and restoration of the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

    http://preservation.myfloridahistory.org/cape-canaveral-lighthouse-cape-canaveral-air-force-station-fl/