Interviews

[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.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

 

Allison Wottawa is exactly the kind of person you want telling you about interesting places and the histories and stories that made them that way. She's energetic, smart, and glows on camera. As you'll read in our interview below and see in the below videos, Allison is the creator and host of an online travel series called Ally Quest.

Her show, which is produced to accommodate a future on television but is broken into easily digestible YouTube segments, is described on her website as "the ultimate show for anyone who has ever wanted to travel in time." Which is, for me at least, the ultimate dream. (And probably why I enjoy watching her show so much.)

I had a chance to talk with Allison about her background, her inspiration, and where the show is headed. And judging by her groundedness, passion, and quality of product, it's easy to see that Allison's star is on its way up.

Tell me a little about your background leading up to this series.

My college adviser said to me, "Allison, do you know the secret of happiness?"  Of course, I didn't.

"The secret of happiness," he continued, " is doing what you love and getting someone to pay you for it."  This is how I live my life.

I've been an actor and a producer for as long as I can remember, starting in theatre when I was six, coupled with a tremendous fascination for history.  History is, after all, a story that examines who we are, where we came from, how we got here.

I graduated from The George Washington University with a major in Political Communications and minors in Theatre and History, then followed my passion across the Atlantic and attended graduate school at Drama Studio London, receiving the English equivalent of an MFA.

What inspired you to create this series?

After graduation, I promptly moved to Los Angeles to pursue my career in acting.  Los Angeles is a great city with so much opportunity and fabulous weather.  But I felt that something was lacking.  I wasn't feeling the "passion" and my career seemed somewhat empty.  I couldn't figure out how my career in acting was helping anyone.

I thought of my college adviser.  What do I love?  Easy.  Travel, history, communicating to an audience.  That's when Ally Quest was born.


Allison filming a golf cart driving segment on Catalina Island.

I know this sounds cliche, but I have always wanted to make a difference in a positive way. Of course, I am also completely selfish and want to travel the world.  I have a yearning to learn as much as I can about places and the people that live there.  My natural gift is communication.

So, traveling the world while researching a point in history, and relaying that information through the lens of the camera -- well, that's just me.  If I can do anything in the world, I'm going to do that! My Mom always said, "You can do anything you put your mind to."  And I believe her. ... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

 

Nikki Giovanni is a widely-read American poet, equality activist, professor of English at Virginia Tech, and the keynote speaker at this week's National Rosenwald Schools Conference. Built over the past 45 years, her collection of poetry is some of the most influential on issues of black American culture and experience.

We are excited for her to lend her voice to the issue of preserving the Rosenwald Schools -- the 4,977 mostly humble buildings paid for by businessman-turned-philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and built by community members throughout 15 states between 1912 and 1932, specifically to educate black children.


Left: A Mural of Giovanni's "Revolutionary Dreams" poem on 113th Street in Los Angeles.

I had the opportunity to ask Nikki Giovanni some questions leading up to her time at the conference. Take a look below, then tune in on Twitter on Saturday, June 16, at 10:30 a.m. CDT, where we'll live-tweet her plenary session from our @PresNationLive account.

What were your first feelings or takeaways after learning about the history of the Rosenwald Schools?

As a history major at Fisk University I was, of course, aware of the Rosenwald Schools and their marvelous history.  I remember thinking how wonderful that people reached out to help the newly freed folk who had the desire and the talent but were not given the tools.  I consider the Rosenwald schools right up there with the Carnegie Libraries:  something needed to help those who had been denied not just an education but a personhood to begin to emerge from the shadows.

What do you find most compelling about the schools?

The most compelling aspect is still the correct reason: a people without access to education cannot go forward.  The Sears/Roebuck family [Julius Rosenwald was the president of Sears until 1924] were terrific partners as many in the black community felt that Roebuck was a black American and was simply giving back to those who had helped him.

The Rosenwald Schools are important, but off the radar for many Americans. What actions do you think would better get them into the public eye?

A lot of black history is off radar, as is a lot of white history.  Why do we have classic films of gangsters but not union workers?  Why does every kid in America know Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Billy the Kid and any other robber and thief but not A. Phillip Randolph and the great story of the Pullman Porters? The only cure for ignorance and hatred is education and truth.  Words are as meaningful as places.

Who or what do you hope the Rosenwald Schools inspire?

I hope these schools remind us what our ancestors have endured to bring us this far.  It has been a good journey, but we still have a ways to go.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

 

You might be asking yourself, "What does a Chinese boat have to do with historic preservation in America?" It's a valid question. But at some point along the way, many of us came to America from someplace else, and this story is about the boat that brought San Francisco native Dione Chen's father here from Taiwan in 1955.

Truth be told, Dione Chen wasn't really even thinking in "preservation" terms when she started advocating to save the Free China, the Chinese "junk"-style boat that her late father sailed on in 1955 with a Chinese and American crew participating in a yacht race across the Pacific. She initially wanted to save the boat mostly because it reminded her of her dad, his interests, and his resourceful idea to participate in the race as a means to a more prosperous future in a new country -- and didn't want the story of his trip to be forgotten. Her resolve only deepened upon discovering that it was one of, if not the, last remaining junks of its kind in the world.


Toasting the Free China's future. From left: John Muir (from the National Park Service and an advisor to Chinese Junk Preservation), Paul Chow (Free China crew member), Calvin Mehlert (Free China crew member), Vera Chow, Iris Chen (widow of crew member Reno Chen), Dione Chen (daughter of crew member Reno Chen and founder of Chinese Junk Preservation), Nguyet Mehlert, and Byron Chung (son of the late crew member Marco Chung).

Dione's journey to save the junk began in September 2007 after visiting the yard where it was being stored -- and seeing its dwindling condition -- with her family after her father's death. In 2008, she launched a nonprofit, Chinese Junk Preservation, recruited advisory council members, and applied for financial support from the National Park Service, the National Trust, and the Chinese Historical Society of America.

After a couple of years trying to woo someone in San Francisco -- or even elsewhere in the United States -- to restore and display the junk, she reached out to entities in Taiwan, where the junk originated, and where a maritime museum in the city of Keelung finally offered assistance. On April 30, 2012, the junk was hoisted onto a massive cargo ship to Keelung, where it arrived yesterday.

I had the chance to talk with Dione about her story, her introduction to preservation, and her advice to people interested saving something or someplace that's important to them.

Have you always been fascinated with the history and future of the junk?

Growing up, I took the junk and its history for granted.  It was "old history." So, no, I can't honestly say I was "fascinated" by the junk. Proud of my dad's story and his pursuit of the "American dream" -- yes. But no, I never had dreams of saving it before my dad died.

I'm sure my dad was disappointed that I didn't ask him more about his life and the junk when he was alive. This is something I regret.  I've been asked what my dad would think about my efforts to save the junk.  I believe that he would have been surprised and proud.  Surprised because he was resigned that no one was interested enough in the junk to save it.  Proud that so many people want to see the Free China junk saved.

I suspect it's often the case that one doesn't fully realize what is "history" worth saving, because we're so busy living in the present.


The Free China on its original journey to the United States in 1955.

Would you consider yourself a preservationist? Why or why not?

I am not familiar with the term "preservationist" as a vocation/calling, so would not consider myself one.  If anything, I am an "accidental preservationist" -- I am well aware that I lack formal training or experience in preservation.

I realized that the junk -- something of historical importance -- should be saved, hopefully could be saved but was in fact destined for destruction. And I thought that I should and could do something to save it because no one else was going to do it.  In hindsight -- with the past 4 years of experience behind me -- I would say that I am someone who has come to realize the important role that each of us can play in preserving history.

Ideally, everyone would consider it their privilege and responsibility to preserve the places, stories, and things that are part of our individual and collective history. Each of has a role in determining what values, stories, and lessons are passed on to future generations. You don't have to be a "professional" historian or archaeologist to step up. ... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

 

I sat down with Dennis Hockman, the new Editor in Chief of Preservation -- the National Trust's quarterly magazine and one of our favorite membership benefits -- to chat about the magazine's new look. Since coming on, Dennis and his team have been working hard to reshape and redesign Preservation to better fit who you all are: people saving places, whether through general interest, advocacy, or hammer-and-nail construction. See what he had to say.

Where are you from, where do you live now, and what made the preservation cause resonate with you?

I've lived in lots of different places. I was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and have lived in the Midwest, the Mountain West, and Maryland. I’ve spent more time in Baltimore than anywhere else, where I live now in a historic center hall colonial -- a restoration work in progress.

As for preservation, I guess taking care of old things is something I’ve always thought was important. Having lived all over the country, what I appreciate most about each region is its uniqueness and personality, that combination of geography and when and why each area was originally developed -- during colonial times, westward expansion, etc.

I’ve also always liked stories. Old objects and buildings harbor the stories of how people used them and who lived or worked in them -- sometimes for generations. Those are the stories that have always intrigued me, and somehow I feel like a big part of that story is lost if we don’t preserve the physical manifestation.

I was also raised to be very practical. My grandparents were all products of the Great Depression, and my parents were raised to appreciate Yankee thrift, a value that passed along to me. I’ve never understood why people feel they constantly need new things when there are so many old things that are still perfectly useful.

How has taking the helm at Preservation magazine changed the way you see the places around you?

I’ve always been intrigued by historic places. My wife will attest that "I brake for historical markers." I am infinitely curious about the places around me -- the older the better.

Years ago, I was backcountry camping with friends in Montana and we stumbled upon an old fallen down miners cabin . On a furious pace to reach the campsite before sundown, my friends kept going, but I couldn’t help stopping to dig through the rubble to see if I could learn anything about the people that stayed there. How long ago? Were the abandoned mines close by? Were there other cabins? The rest of the trip is a haze, but those moments I spent in the cabin are still crystal clear.

If anything has changed since coming on board with Preservation, I guess I’ve started thinking not just about what a place was, but what it can be. ... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.