In 1970, a suspicious fire gutted the abandoned Keepers’ House located at the St. Augustine Light Station. The following year, St. Johns County purchased the property from the United States Coast Guard with the intention of demolishing the burned-out shell of the building. Enter the Junior Service League of St. Augustine and the idea of restoring the Keepers’ House as a museum and community center. The women of the JSL literally turned back the bulldozers, saving a piece of local history.

In 1981, the members of the Junior Service League adopted the Keepers’ House as their newest service project. The JSL signed a 99-year lease with St. Johns County for the Keepers’ House and grounds and launched an estimated $300,000 campaign to restore the exterior of the building to its original beauty. Through the assistance of Hamilton Upchurch, who served in the Florida House of Representatives, the League approached the State of Florida and the Bureau of Historic Preservation. The agency provided a matching grant of $15,000, requiring the League to raise an additional $15,000. The League members raised money in a variety of ways including reaching out to businesses like Winn-Dixie and CSX in Jacksonville and private foundations such as the David Family Foundation. Members also sold prints of the Keepers’ House by local artist Scott Young and hosted progressive dinners. The League also started the Bud Light 5K Run in a partnership with Burkhardt Distribution, an event known today as the Lighthouse 5K and Fun Run.

With the completion of the Keepers’ House project, the Junior Service League reached out to the United States Coast Guard operations in Jacksonville to inquire about the potential of leasing the lighthouse tower and opening it to the public. The League received a guarantee that the Coast Guard would paint the tower prior to it handing it over to the League. In 1992, the League launched the tower restoration project with the primary goal of restoring the tower and repairing the damaged Fresnel lens. The damage resulted from an unfortunate event, in 1986, when a vandal shot and damaged 19 of the 370 glass panels in the Fresnel lens (pictured below left).

The Coast Guard prepared to remove the historic Fresnel lens and replace it with an airport beacon, thus destroying the historic value of the lighthouse tower. Yet, prior to 1992, no lighthouse in the country had undertaken a restoration of its Fresnel lens. With the help of two Coast Guard Lampists, Joe Cocking and Nick Johnston, the League partnered with Artworks Florida who fabricated replacement parts for the damaged glass in the lens. Dan Spinella, who started Artworks Florida, had previously worked with Walt Disney Imagineering and brought his talents to the project. On May 21, 1993, a community wide celebration was held on the grounds of the Museum for the relighting of the original Fresnel lens. The following year, the restoration work on the tower and the oil house took place, completing the final stage of the League’s restoration of the original light station buildings.

Because of the success of the Junior Service League of St. Augustine and their restoration of the Keepers’ House and lighthouse tower, other lighthouses across the country launched similar projects. The St. Augustine Lighthouse is a symbol not only of the determination of a local service organization to save our history but also as a blueprint for other organizations to save our historic lighthouses across the country!

As we celebrate the achievements of women during Women’s History Month, the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum pays homage to the women of the Junior Service League of St. Augustine, their ingenuity and resolve in preserving our history. Their commitment to historical preservation lives on in the Museum’s exhibits, educational programming and outreach, all designed to preserve and keep alive the stories of our past.

Consider becoming a donor and helping the Museum save our history.  You can make your gift by clicking here.