St. Joseph passes on Coast Guard house

St. Joseph commissioners Monday rejected a proposal to buy the historic lighthouse keeper’s house along the St. Joseph River, citing prohibitive costs.

ST. JOSEPH — Buying the historic lighthouse keeper’s house wasn’t such a bright idea after all, St. Joseph commissioners decided Monday.

“It’s a bridge too far,” Mayor Mike Garey said as commissioners balked at the expense of acquiring and renovating the brick duplex at 103 N. Pier St., now owned by the U.S. Coast Guard, and converting it into a visitor’s center and museum. “I can’t commit myself.”

City Manager John Hodgson reported that the asking price was $445,000. He had previously told commissioners that the structure would require almost $1 million in repairs and renovations over the next five to 10 years, including $115,000 in immediate repairs.

“I don’t think we have the money,” Commissioner Jeff Richards said. “We have other things we need to spend on.”

Commissioner Peggy Getty said that, as a resident, she’d say no to the proposal. “There are a lot of questionable expenses.”

Resident Gloria Mance, a former member of the parks board, called the proposal “a waste of money.”

Sylvia Lieberg, another longtime parks board member, suggested the purchase should be put to a vote of residents.

St. Joseph passes on Coast Guard house

The St. Joseph lighthouse keeper’s house, near the North Pier, is shown in a photograph from 1914. The city passed on buying the house from the Coast Guard for possible use as a visitor’s center and museum.

The house was constructed in 1908 as the home of the lighthouse keeper and his family, and had most recently served as housing for the U.S. Coast Guard, which vacated it a few years ago. Proceeds from the sale will go toward funding military housing.

While city officials were interested in obtaining the structure, the location presented some difficulties. It’s on a small street with limited parking, next to a private residence. Maintaining it there also would keep it off the tax rolls.

Hodgson and staff looked into the possibility of shifting it closer to the pier. This would make it more visible as an attraction and would provide more parking. It would make room for a home to be built there (or two, if the lot is split), generating additional tax revenue.

Selling the vacant lot could offset some of the costs of the purchase and relocation, Hodgson explained. A real estate agent estimated the value of the property at $400,000.

The city obtained estimates on the cost of moving the building, which ranged from $100,000 to $220,000. The high bid included constructing a basement at the new location, and the company said it would consider moving the house by barge, which could lower the cost.

Hodgson calculated that selling the property for $400,000 would put the cost for purchasing and moving it at $265,000. But getting that price for the lot was not guaranteed, he conceded.

Fundraising and grants for renovations couldn’t be counted on, either, he said.

“This is getting married. You’re married to the project,” Hodgson said. “And you have to understand what you’re getting married to.”

Commissioner Laura Goos asked if the city “could get divorced” and sell the house if things didn’t work out.

Hodgson said that if St. Joseph didn’t buy the house, it would be made available through an online auction. Any purchaser would be required to maintain it as a historic building.

Commissioner Lynn Todman said those restrictions would likely limit the number of bidders. “There may be no takers.”

Maintenance costs on historic homes are “killer,” Todman added.

Richards said the city should keep its options open down the road if the Coast Guard doesn’t find a buyer for the house.

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