Nonprofit acquires Milwaukee lighthouse

A local nonprofit organization announced on Monday it has acquired the Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse from the federal government and has plans to restore the 87-year-old structure and make it accessible to the public.

 

The lighthouse, built in 1926, is located at the far south end of a detached mile-long breakwall that projects along the Summerfest grounds. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.

Optima Enrichment, a local nonprofit organization, recently acquired the lighthouse from the federal government. The organization was founded in 2003 by Brookfield optometrist Randall Melchert and several others and has been involved in philanthropic missions such as funding low-income students to visit college campuses, sending needy children to camps and helping with transportation of Honor Flight recipients.

Optima Enrichment plans to raise funds to restore the lighthouse and plans to use volunteers to do work on low safety risk improvement projects in the building. The organization wants to make the lighthouse accessible to the public. The lighthouse can only be accessed via boat because the breakwater it is on is not attached to land.

“We are absolutely thrilled to be entrusted with the lighthouse and the restoration of this icon of our harbor,” Melchert said. “The view of both the Milwaukee skyline as well as Lake Michigan (from the lighthouse) is a spiritual experience that we want to share with our community and tourists alike. We are hoping to open it to the public for events like Doors Open Milwaukee. We want to open it for events and sightseeing for people to appreciate the maritime history of Milwaukee.”

Brookfield-based Chamberlin Group was hired by Optima Enrichment to be the project development manager for the lighthouse restoration project.

“This is an opportunity for the community to experience a place of inspiration, having served as a Milwaukee harbor icon for generations,” said Carolyn Chamberlin, vice president of Chamberlin Group. “Restoring this gateway to Milwaukee will really enhance and complement the ongoing development at the lakefront.”

The restoration work for the building is expected to cost up to $2.5 million, Chamberlin said.

“It will take some serious fund-raising,” Melchert said. “But I think the Milwaukee community will rally around the cause.”

The exterior of the building is in good condition, and most of the restoration work needs to be done on the interior, she said.

“The exterior is solid,” Chamberlin said. “It’s riveted steel.”

The building will be used for small group meetings and events. Otherwise it will be open to the public, Chamberlin said. A dock needs to be added to help people get off of boats and into the lighthouse building, she said.

Optima hopes to work out arrangements with Milwaukee sightseeing boat operations for them to make stops at the lighthouse. Located half a mile from the shore, it will remain accessible only by boat.

“That’s part of what makes it exciting and interesting,” Melchert said.

Visitors to the building will be able to take in views of the lake and city from two decks, including an upper level deck that is about three levels above the water and two levels below the tower, which will not be accessible to the public. The lighthouse is 53 feet tall.

“The view from the top (deck) is absolutely breathtaking,” Chamberlin said. “It’s an absolutely stunning experience.”

Some of the interior will have museum displays of lighthouse artifacts, which could include the Fourth Order Fresnel lens light that once stood in the lighthouse’s tower and is now on display in the Manitowoc Maritime Museum, and one of the keeper’s quarters. The building originally had a living room, dining room, kitchen and four keepers’ quarters. But it has been without a resident keeper since 1966.

The building is now lit by a red light that boaters can turn on with a radio channel. That light will remain in use so the building will continue to be used as a navigational aid, Chamberlin said.

But Optima also plans to add lights to light up the exterior of the building at night, enhancing its landmark status in the city.

“I can’t wait to see it lit up and finally shining out there like it should,” Chamberlin said.
The restored lighthouse could be a compliment to numerous other developments planned to enhance the lakefront area, including recent improvements to the Summerfest grounds, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.’s planned 33-story office tower and the Barrett Visionary Development’s proposed 44-story hotel and apartment tower.

“This will compliment all of those,” Melchert said.

“It could be a really nice compliment to everything happening at the lakefront,” Chamberlin said. “It’s a really nice time for it to happen.”

Bobby Tanzilo of OnMilwaukee.com, a media partner of BizTimes Milwaukee, recently explored the Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse.

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