Return of the Fire Island Lighthouse Fresnel Lens

Engraving of Cross Section through First Order Fresnel Lens

Fire Island's Fresnel Lens

When the present Fire Island Light began operation on November 1, 1858, it was illuminated by a state-of-the-art first order Fresnel (pronounced fray-nel') lens, an intricate beehive-shaped mass of brass and glass prisms, rotating on a clockwork assembly. This lighting apparatus served as a beacon to mariners from the top of the Fire Island Lighthouse from 1858 to 1933.

In anticipation of the electrification of the Fire Island Light, the original lens was taken out of service in 1933, disassembled, crated up, and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where it was displayed at the Franklin Institute. In 2000, it was removed from permanent exhibit, disassembled, crated and placed in storage. It was moved to Long Island, New York, in 2007.

On March, 8, 2011, the Fire Island Light Station's first lighting apparatus-now more than 150 years old-made its way back to Fire Island...still in crates. Its future home, an intriguing new building designed specifically to display the impressive 16-foot-tall artifact, is still under construction.

The lens was reassembled during the spring of 2011, and unveiled to the public on July 22, 2011.


Park Partners Help Bring the Lens Back to Fire Island

The Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society (FILPS), a nonprofit organization which was instrumental in the preservation of the deteriorating Fire Island Lighthouse in the late 1970s, now operates visitor services at the site under a cooperating agreement with the National Park Service at Fire Island National Seashore. Since 2006, FILPS has also maintained the Fire Island Light as a private aid to navigation under an agreement with the United States Coast Guard.

FILPS is authorized as a fundraising partner to support maintenance and improvements at the Fire Island Lighthouse, and since 2005 has helped raise more than $400,000 for the construction of the new building to display and interpret Fire Island's original first order Fresnel lens.


Brief History of Fire Island's Fresnel Lens

The first Fire Island Lighthouse, 74 feet tall, was built on the western end of Fire Island in 1826; its light could be seen for 10 nautical miles out to sea. In 1852, Congress—following the recommendation of the United States Lighthouse Service—ordered the Fresnel-type of apparatus to be installed in all newly constructed lighthouses.

The current Fire Island Lighthouse, completed in 1858 with a state-of-the-art revolving first order Fresnel lens and Funck hydraulic lamp using whale oil, had a focal plane of 166 feet above sea level, so that this light could be seen from ships at least 21 nautical miles at sea. This was a part of a national initiative to improve maritime safety. It is significant today as a symbol of the commercial and maritime heritage of the United States, and the evolution of communication and navigational technologies. The Fresnel lens helps tell that story.

This original first order Fresnel lens, an intricate beehive-shaped mass of brass and glass prisms, served as a beacon to mariners from the top of the Fire Island Lighthouse from 1858 to 1933. After being taken out of service, it was displayed at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia from 1939 to 2000.

A "Return of the Lens" has long been envisioned. In 1986, Fire Island National Seashore (FINS) identified the lens as an important artifact that was envisioned for inclusion in the park's cultural history collection. Informal discussions with the Franklin Institute, the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society (FILPS), and the United States Coast Guard (USCG) were initiated in 1991. When the lens was slated for removal from the Franklin Institute in 2000, FINS and FILPS began formal discussions with USCG for the transfer of the object to the National Park Service (NPS) on a long-term, renewable loan. By 2001, more than 30 crates of the disassembled lens were being stored by the NPS, awaiting construction of a suitable display facility.

At one point, the Seashore's Patchogue Ferry Terminal was considered for the display of the lens. While that project was scaled back, the FILPS worked with Fire Island National Seashore staff and maritime history experts to assess appropriate solutions for the return of the lens to the Fire Island Lighthouse.

In 2007, the NPS drafted the appropriate agreements, conducted required environmental reviews and selected a development alternative that determined that a new structure would be built to house and display the historic lens. The new building is being built in accordance with the Secretary of the Interior's standards for new construction at historic sites and must be compatible with the architectural styles of the 1939 Light Station Tract, reminiscent of the mass and scale of historic buildings previously located on the site.

Fresnel Lens Building Plans and historic image.
Approved plan called for the construction of a new display building that resembled a generator building located on site from 1894-1940s.

A New Fresnel Lens Display Building

An environmental assessment and assessment of effect for the proposed construction of a building to display the Fire Island Light Station's original first order Fresnel lens was available for public review in early 2007.

After a period of public review and comment, a Finding of No Significant Impact was signed in August 2007, paving the way for planning and fundraising to create a new home for first light used at the Fire Island Lighthouse.


In 2008-09, plans for the new historically-compatible building were fine-tuned as archeological surveys were conducted and permits were completed. During the summer of 2009, the boathouse was relocated close to its original location north of the Lighthouse, making way for construction of the lens display building.

The lens display building is constructed over the foundation of the former power generation building that stood at the site from 1894 to the late 1940s. Since the mid-1950s, the boathouse had been sitting on this foundation. The new building will offer enhanced visitor experiences, providing a fuller understanding of the technological changes in visible aids to navigation from the 1850s to the present and additional opportunities to interpret the history and significance of the Fire Island Light Station.

FILPS began in 2007 to raise money for the planning, design, and construction of the project, which was expected to cost approximately $500,000 for the building alone. As part of the fundraising effort FILPS was successful in obtaining a New York State grant to assist in construction of the new lens display building. Donated funds, labor and in-kind services will make up the rest. Groundbreaking began in July 2010, and by September 20, 2010, a topping-off celebration was held.

As the building was taking shape, so was the lens.

In 2009-10, FINS received $369,322 from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act) funding for the conservation, reassembly and installation of the Fresnel lens. The NPS awarded a contract in 2010 to MACTEC Engineering and Consulting, Inc., from Portland, Maine, for the lens restoration.


Learn More

  • History of Fire Island
  • History of the Fire Island Lighthouse
  • Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society
  • The Fire Island Light Station was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on September 11, 1981.
  • See Cultural Landscapes Inventory for Fire Island Light Station, 2004

Last updated: February 15, 2018

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