For sale: A piece of local history

The city of St. Joseph is considering purchasing the former lighthouse keeper’s house, 103 N. Pier St., for possible use as an educational and cultural center. The U.S. Coast Guard, which most recently used the duplex for housing, is putting the building up for sale and has said it will consider a “direct sale” to the city if the two parties come to terms.

ST. JOSEPH — St. Joseph officials will be taking a closer look at possibly purchasing a historic lighthouse keeper’s house which the U.S. Coast Guard is looking to sell.

Commissioners on Monday authorized City Manager John Hodgson to submit a letter of intent expressing interest in purchasing the house at 103 N. Pier St., along the St. Joseph River.

The duplex was built in 1908, around the time the lighthouses were erected, and was used as a dwelling for the lighthouse keeper, family members and assistants. It was later acquired by the Coast Guard and used as housing, but was vacated several years ago.

The Coast Guard did not choose to dispose of the property through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, through which the city received the North Pier lighthouses at no cost. Instead, the house is being offered under the Coast Guard Housing Authority Act, which allows it to be sold at fair market value, with the proceeds going toward new military housing.  

Hodgson said the Coast Guard is ready to make the property available to the general public, and can consider a “direct sale” to the city. That would require a letter of intent from the city to begin the negotiation process to determine the fair market value of the house.

St. Joseph will have to hire an appraiser by July 8, Hodgson said, and the Coast Guard wants to close a sale by Sept. 30.

The letter of intent doesn’t obligate the city to make a purchase, but starts the process and allows the city to look into the condition of the house and its use as an educational and cultural center, Hodgson explained.

If sold, a historic covenant would be placed on the property requiring that it be maintained according to the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for historic properties, the same standards required for the lighthouses.

The possible purchase was first discussed last November. At that time, Hodgson did not have an estimate of the value of the property, but said that other houses in the area had sold for around $500,000.

Hodgson said that the lighthouse keeper’s house is part of the federal government’s presence in the community, that also includes the piers, lighthouses and catwalks, the keepers’ dwelling, the U.S. Life Saving Service Station, that was incorporated into the Coast Guard Station, and the U.S. Lighthouse Depot that is the site of the St. Joseph River Yacht Club.

A sidewalk runs in front of the house to Tiscornia Beach and the North Pier.

After the city acquired the lighthouses, a community fundraising campaign brought in $2 million for their restoration. Since completion in 2016, tours of the lighthouses, conducted by the Heritage Museum, have been popular.

Commissioners were enthusiastic about the possibilities. Commissioner Laura Goos said other communities use such buildings for museums with gift shops.

Mayor Mike Garey said it makes sense to look into the opportunity.

“Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” Garey said. “I don’t want to say we didn’t try, that we didn’t give it our best shot.”

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak