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By Arlie Porter
Stranded at sea off Folly Beach, its stairs rusted, windows missing and leaning slightly, the Morris Island Lighthouse is charitably described as one heck of a fixer-upper.
But on Friday, a state agency is expected to agree to buy the historic lighthouse, placing it in public hands after nearly 38 years of private ownership, neglect and worries that it may one day fall into the sea.
The S.C. Natural Resources Department is poised to buy the lighthouse from its owner, Save the Light Inc., a local citizens group dedicated to preserving the lighthouse.
Save the Light will sell the lighthouse for a nominal fee, and the state agency will in turn lease it back to Save the Light for 99 years.
After the sale, the lighthouse will be in public hands and therefore eligible for additional government money to stabilize and restore it, an undertaking expected to cost more than $1 million.
"We know this is a huge undertaking, but we're confident there is enormous interest in the lighthouse, and it surely is the most visible symbol of our maritime history," said Robert New, a Folly Beach resident and co-chairman of Save the Light.
"We've always believed this is a state treasure. Not just a Lowcountry treasure," he said.
Russell Holliday Jr., a Natural Resources board member, said she can't speak for the entire board but that she supports the purchase now that state concerns of liability and costs are resolved. The purchase must still be approved by local state lawmakers and the S.C. Budget and Control Board.
The lighthouse, built in 1876 and on the National Register of Historic Places, towers 158 feet above Lighthouse Inlet between Folly Beach and Morris Island.
It once sat on Morris Island, which has eroded steadily in the past 100 years. As the sea washed over the island in 1939, the caretaker's house was disassembled and moved. The 32-ton lighthouse was abandoned.
Now the lighthouse sits more than 150 yards offshore in the inlet, where its foundation and base are pounded by waves at high tide.
The foundation is strong, according to initial structural studies. But fearing the lighthouse could one day topple into the surrounding sea, Save the Light mounted a drive to buy and restore it.
Save the Light bought the lighthouse for $75,000 from a Columbia businessman last year. Since then, the nonprofit organization has paid off the mortgage and raised an additional $250,000.
While the state's purchase is a huge step, making the lighthouse eligible for as much as $1 million in Army Corps of Engineers funding, New said Save the Light still has a massive fund-raising campaign ahead.
The first step is a federal and state-funded study to find out what it will take to shore up the lighthouse, which is leaning 0.7 degrees.
The study would take about a year and could cost up to $1 million. Until the study is finished, it's not clear how much it will cost to save the structure, but New estimated a few million.
Once the lighthouse is stabilized, Save the Light will restore its interior and exterior, New said.
Save the Light hopes to provide limited access to the lighthouse for educational purposes. It's too soon to say what public access would be allowed, but the lighthouse isn't suited for heavy use, Executive Director Doug Bostick said.
It is in the middle of an inlet and accessible only by boat. It has no dock, though one would likely be built. And it wasn't built for 50 people standing on its steps and platforms, Bostick said.
"It was built for a keeper to bring 10 gallon buckets of lard oil up the steps," he said.
New said Save the Light still plans some historic exhibit of the lighthouse at the former Coast Guard base on Folly Beach. Save the Light will also ask for the return of the original lighthouse lens from Hunting Island State Park, where the 12-foot high, six-foot-wide steel assembly is on display.
New and Bostick encouraged the public to attend the Natural Resources board meeting to show support for the state's purchase of the Morris Island Lighthouse. The meeting is scheduled for Friday at 10 a.m. at the NOAA lab building just inside the gate at the Fort Johnson Marine Center on James Island.