The nearly full moon was my reading lamp on a recent summer night. Seated in the Lighthouse parlor by the open screened window, I enjoyed enough lunar glow to scrawl a few sentences in my notebook. A pleasant breeze poured through the window screen. The sound of chanting katydids filled the air. The rippling surface of the river was silvered by the moonlight. The fresh air cleared my head before I climbed into bed.
One of the exquisite pleasures of this time of year is opening up the house to the cool night air. It is also a tactic for surviving without air conditioning. The Lighthouse lacks modern climate control, yet it remains more or less comfortable throughout the entire summer. Built in the 19th century before the invention of modern mechanical air conditioning, it incorporates some special design features to promote natural cooling. The proximity to the water also helps.
Thick masonry walls provide thermal mass, moderating temperatures throughout the day. Large south-facing windows catch the prevailing breezes. The windows are aligned for cross-ventilation. The central stairwell with a transom over the doorway vents warm air upstairs. The tower access is on the second floor, taking advantage of the “chimney effect” and allowing the rising warm air to escape out the highest point in the house. Screened windows in the tower vent the heat. This vertical circulation creates airflow through the house even when there is no breeze outside.
These features are not unique to the Lighthouse, but can be found in many of the historic homes of the era, especially those of Italianate design. The Italian Villa style was popular in the 19th century and easily adapted to the purposes of a lighthouse, since an attached tower was a common component of this architectural fashion. Whenever practical, the U.S. Lighthouse Board tried to adapt their buildings not only to the local climate but also the regional architectural styles so the lighthouses would fit their surroundings.
The Saugerties Lighthouse is one of the few intact examples of a lighthouse design that was once common in the region. Construction of the lighthouse was a matter of taking a plan off the shelf and freshening it up, modifying it to meet local conditions before sending it out to bid. Lighthouses of similar design were found in areas with similar site conditions. The chosen design was influenced by factors such as water depth, bottom solidity, tendency for ice and locally available building materials.
Similar-looking Italianate lighthouses were built in several locations including Newark Bay, Long Island Sound and the Hudson River. Precursors of the design once stood in Newark Bay as the now defunct Passaic and Bergen Point lighthouses. In addition to the Saugerties Lighthouse, near duplicates were built on the Hudson River for the Rondout, Stuyvesant and Coxsackie Lighthouses.
The choice of construction materials relied on what was available in the vicinity. On the Hudson River, local building materials meant bricks from nearby brickyards and indigenous bluestone. Massive limestone blocks for the foundations were quarried in the outskirts of Kingston. The Rondout Lighthouse was eventually replaced and the other two were torn down, leaving only the one here in Saugerties.
Another example remains on eastern Long Island at the entrance to Sag Harbor: the Cedar Island Lighthouse. Unfortunately it is now a burnt-out shell, having suffered a fire in the 1970s that gutted the inside. In the hopes of recreating it, the restoration committee for Cedar Island has made occasional visits to view the interior of the Saugerties Lighthouse, which was lovingly preserved and restored by our Conservancy. Comparing the differences between the two lighthouses helps to understand how the original plans were modified for site-specific conditions. For instance, ours lacks north-facing windows to protect against the prevailing winter winds in the Hudson Valley, while the lighthouse at Cedar Island has four windows on the corresponding wall.
On this particular night, I was unconcerned with the faraway winter wind and relished the delicious southerly summer breeze captured by the parlor windows. The sounds of the night poured through the screen. Who needs air conditioning with these natural river breezes? Even in the absence of any wind, the whirring of a small electric fan is usually enough for a comfortable night of sleeping.
A few parting thoughts inspired by the wind and waves and moonlight: the finest achievements of architecture are not in shutting out the natural elements altogether, but in a refined interaction with them. If architecture aspires to a form of poetry, it is found in this interplay of the building with light, air and water. Of course, the poetry of a house must be experienced from the inside. Better yet, at night— when the house takes on a dreamlike quality.
What distinguishes a lighthouse from a standard house (aside from the light atop, of course) is its intimate relationship with the water. Fashioned from the particulars of this place, the design of the Saugerties Lighthouse is a form of listening— responding to the seasons and moods of the river.
Patrick Landewe is the Saugerties Lighthouse keeper. His column appears monthly.