If you swoon for curves and color of splendid old architecture, enter the Southeast Lighthouse of Block Island, RI. Built in 1874, this 150-year-old Rhode Island building beckons you with textures to take your breath away. Join me now as we open the door and climb that historic spiral staircase!
Did you know that this 2,000-ton lighthouse was picked up and moved in 1993 so it wouldn’t fall into the ocean? The Southeast Lighthouse sits on cliffs called the Mohegan Bluffs, and years of erosion meant that by the 1990s, the tower was a mere 55 feet from the edge (down from 300). A resounding “Thanks!” goes to the local volunteers who raised almost $2 million to lift the building onto rails to slide it several hundred feet inland towards safety. The move took 19 days, but it sure was worth it to preserve this gem of New England.
Once you’ve climbed the lighthouse’s swirling stairs and stand high atop the 67-foot tower, take your time to examine the surrounding facets of beauty. To one side of you is the massive lens: an emerald green double lamp ensconced in ridges of layered glass. To the other side is a circular embrace of windows, green nature and sapphire ocean stretching out below. Between the lens and the walls, the colors reflect and refract, creating pure art. Can you see the upside-down world in the glass, above?
As if this weren’t enough beauty, the lens creates rainbows! Look closely, and you’ll see them all around… maybe even on your shoes. Every angle of the lighthouse offers a new delight, from the honeycomb shapes of the floor grates, to the delicate curl and crack of the walls’ paint, to the interplay of a spider’s web with the analogous architecture beside it.
The bright green color of the light is one of the most distinctive features of the Southeast Lighthouse, and it was chosen with safety in mind. Perusing a map, you can see that Block Island forms a dangerous “stumbling block” for ships chugging through the Long Island Sound between Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York. An effective light was necessary.
It was the 1858 shipwreck of the Palmetto by Mohegan Bluffs that spurred the construction of the lighthouse in the first place. The first light was white, however, and ships sometimes mistook it for merely another ship — not the dangerous cliffs it actually indicated. To remedy this, the light was switched to its current luscious emerald color in 1929. I’d like all my kitchen glassware to be that color, please!
Now here’s an unexpected twist: The former lighthouse keeper’s quarters are currently being renovated into a mini-hotel! Can you imagine what an exciting and romantic getaway it would be to spend a night — or three — sleeping inside this historic tower?!
In yet more monumental news, just down the cliffs from Block Island’s Southeast Lighthouse, America’s first offshore wind farm is being built! These windmills in the ocean are a huge step forward in our country’s quest for clean energy, and may serve as models for more offshore power generation tools to come. Blow on, blades!
As I climbed down those epic lighthouse stairs the day of my tour, I was dizzy with passion for the building. I had left my 3-month-old baby with the charming director of Rhode Island Tourism on the lighthouse porch (long story, but we were hanging out that day), and I could tell from my little girl’s chipper attitude when I retrieved her that she had also dug the scene. What a place!
So what should you know if you want to visit the Southeast Lighthouse, yourself? Mosey on over to this section of the Block Island Tourism page for updated information on lighthouse hours and touring availability. If you are lucky enough to be able to go up the tower, there is a small charge, but all proceeds go to maintaining the precious structure.
For information on getting to the island (hang on tight on the fast ferry!) and for fabulous things to do there beyond the Lighthouse, check out my lobster-roll-loving article, “Block Island: Wild Beauty and Relaxation.”
Finally, a day trip to the island is possible, but somewhat exhausting, so consider browsing some of Block Island’s great hotels:
- The National Hotel (click for rates and availability)
- Spring House Hotel (has an amazing view)
- The Darius Inn (a top-rated B&B on the island)
- Hotel Manisses (beloved by many)
If you’d rather rent a house or condo — a great and economical choice for families and groups — I highly recommend the sites HomeAway and VRBO (click for convenient links to Block Island rentals). Hope these resources help!
So what about you? Have you been to Block Island, and if so, did you see this lighthouse? If not, what do the photos make you think and feel? Do share!
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