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.