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Installation of new lens marks rebirth of Buffalo Lighthouse

The Buffalo Lighthouse will once again slice the night over Lake Erie, thanks to a lens crafted in Florida by a mechanical engineer whose real job in part is to design roller coasters for Disney World.

Installing the 500-pound third-order Fresnel lens, made from brass and optical acrylic, will mark a turning point in a restoration that started in 1987, two years after the U.S. Coast Guard turned maintenance of the iconic tower over to the Buffalo Lighthouse Association. The lens itself will not officially be engaged until next June, but Lighthouse Point was rocking on Monday with an installation crew of chimney workers, preservationists and men wearing white gloves.

“This caps the restoration of the 1833 Lighthouse,” said Michael Vogel, lighthouse association president. “It’s an event we really do want to celebrate. We’ve been bothered for two years seeing the lantern empty. And before that, it stood empty for 73 years until 1987.”

Vogel had just carried 35 pounds of lens up the structure’s 50 interior stairs. It was an act repeated over and over as Vogel and others wearing white gloves took care not to compromise the complex system of prism and brass that make up the lens. Gloves, Vogel said, protect the brass from skin oil that can lead to tarnish.

Meanwhile, Rob Vizza of International Chimney appeared to be completing a Spider-Man move as he perched himself some 60 feet up the tower, securing ropes and hoists with his crew to help lift what could not be carried.

Vizza, a corporate safety director, said his father and brother worked 15 months to restore the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse before it was moved. Vizza’s plan in Buffalo was to lift the lens parts up the tower’s outside, through the hatch and into a room below the lantern. With Lake Erie wind kicking up, the crew took special care so the fragile cargo did not swing and crash into the limestone lighthouse.

“I’ve done industrial smokestacks, but this is my first lighthouse,” he said.

The $120,000 lens restoration project included removal of the old lens, a complete museum conservation and building the new and bigger lens, which is more historically appropriate, said Vogel. The lens construction capped a $650,000 restoration effort of the historic landmark. Initial improvements included the city-funded brick walking path leading up to the lighthouse, masonry repainting on the structure’s 4-foot-thick wall and other stone work.

The former lens, a fourth-order Fresnel, had deteriorated but, through grants and fundraising efforts, the nonprofit association restored the old lens for display at the Heritage Discovery Center, 100 Lee St., the central office of the Buffalo Lighthouse Association and other groups including the Steel Plant Museum of Western New York.

Vogel called the lens the soul of a lighthouse because it collects beams of light from a center lamp – in the 1800s, it was usually a kerosene flame – and focuses them horizontally into one 6-inch-thick light ray that scans the horizon.

The new lens was transported here by Dan Spinella – lens crafter and Disney designer and engineer – and a friend who drove from Artworks Florida, his business in Celebration, Fla.

Vogel called Spinella a “godsend to the preservation industry.”

Spinella said his interest in lighthouses developed first through art. After he moved to Florida, Spinella often visited St. Augustine Light, where efforts to repair its lens were underway after the lens was shot up by vandals.

“I researched how lenses were designed and I located the formulas,” he recalled. “This was ’91, so the Internet was just starting. I found some books written in 1850 and I was hooked. It kind of became a hobby after that.”

Spinella has since manufactured 23 lenses, 16 of them for lighthouses. He reproduced the third-order Fresnel lens at cost for the Buffalo Lighthouse for $77,000.

Spinella still makes glass replacement pieces for historic lenses but he also reproduces complete lenses out of acrylic.

“It makes them more affordable,” he said. “Acrylic lenses are about 10 percent of the actual cost of lenses made of glass.”

Monday’s installation at Lighthouse Point was the “fun part” for Spinella, who described the manufacturing process as tedious. “Think about it,” he said. “It’s 95 degrees in Florida, and I do my work outside because I am sanding and polishing. It’s dirty work.”

For Spinella’s day job at Disney World, he designs the ride systems from the ground up including track, vehicle and ride simulation. His projects include the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in the Magic Kingdom and Slinky Dog Roller Coaster.

In 1984, the Buffalo Lighthouse entered the National Register of Historic Places. It was discontinued as a lighthouse in 1914, said Stasia Vogel, tour and events director for the association. Owned by the U.S. Coast Guard, it is leased to the association, she said.

Testing the lens will occur after the navigation season is over so as not to confuse boaters, said Mike Vogel.

“We can’t have it mistaken for a working aid to navigation,” he said. “I don’t want to lure mariners to the rocks.”

email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com