The Tanglewood Lighthouse Project
Restoration nearing completion By David Haglund
Photo Courtesy of the Fox Island Museum
The current residents of Tanglewood Island are busy—as so many have been during the shutdown of the past year—with their own gardens and home improvement projects. But they have also aroused their neighbors’ interest and attention to a labor of love they commenced last fall—their renovation of the iconic Lighthouse that rises 40 feet above the tidal beach on the north end of the island.
There are now four families who make their home on Tanglewood. The island has been privately owned since the end of the 19th century, when a mortician from the Tacoma area bought it as a vacation retreat. Four decades later, a Tacoma physician, partly out of concern about “juvenile delinquency,” bought the island and created his Camp Ta-Ha-Do-Wa For Boys. After another 40 years or so, around 1980, four families with ties to the Puget Sound, then living in Southern California, decided to come back here to live—and they bought the island together. (And one of those four families still resides on Tanglewood.)
The history of the Lighthouse begins with the construction of Camp Ta-Ha-Do-Wa. Its facilities were built mid-20th century over a period of years until the island resembled a rustic resort, with cabins, maintenance buildings, a ball diamond, swimming pool and that amazing Lodge, the walls of which rested directly on the seawall. The Lighthouse was built to stand out in the water at flood tide and near water’s edge at the ebb, and was connected to the Lodge by two bridges at the first- and second-story level. The masonry of the Lighthouse is in remarkably good shape today, presumably because it was built by professional bricklayers who were available at the time because of a masons strike in Tacoma.
The Lodge and Lighthouse are fixtures in many locals’ memories because, in their youth, they attended proms, graduations or recreational events held there. Some remember the skating on the Lodge’s open second floor—open because the enormous roof trusses obviated the need for pillars. Some remember the heated salt-water swimming pool just inside the seawall, which was an early “infinity pool” when the tide was high. And others—usually older men—can’t help but smile as they recall the time they smuggled illicit contraband (often packaged in bundles of six) onto the island the day before a chaperoned high school dance.
Sadly, the beautiful Lodge was built with two fatal flaws: The foundation for its exterior walls was subject to undermining by the action of the tides on the outside of the seawall upon which it rested, and the floor of the Lodge had been built on fill dirt, the elevation of which was about 18 inches too low. The extreme tides of almost every winter flooded the Lodge’s first floor, and when that water drained out, it undermined the foundation of the seawall from the inside. In spite of efforts to shore it up, the seawall on the northwest side settled, cracked and splayed open several years ago, which threatened the integrity of the two-story structure resting precariously over the breach. That, combined with other “causes incident to age,” led the county to prohibit any further public use of the Lodge.
The Lighthouse also had become rundown over the years, inside and out. But because the structure itself was sound, the families of Tanglewood, led by the one with the longest residence, decided last year to clean it up and, eventually, to restore it—to dry it in first and then, over a long-enough period to budget for the work, to renovate the interior. The work of paint prep and drying in, replacing the top deck and cupola and the 12 broken windows, is what began in the latter half of 2020.
Another of the island residents—a civil engineer by profession—had been interested in restoring the Lighthouse ever since the Lodge was condemned, but he passed away a few years ago. So, in tribute to his departed friend, one of his fellow engineers is now supervising the work (and doing much of it, rather like a player/coach). And as they can, the island residents are contributing their own means, might and main to get the work done. The walls have been cleaned inside and out, and the exterior, painted white long ago, is now free of decades-worth of moss and lichen overgrowth, and appears almost dazzling on the sunny days now becoming more frequent in our spring prelude to summer.
When temperatures turn reliably warmer, the repainting can begin and, when that is done, the new windows will be installed. The 12 replacement window frames are replicas of the arched originals which pivot at the center (as opposed to being hinged on one side or other) and are built out of “period” wood that was milled by the islanders into planks from 150-year-old cedar logs, and then sawn, planed, sanded and put together by the supervising engineer who, in addition to his day-job construction skills using steel and concrete, is also an accomplished woodworker.
The motivations for this restoration, naturally, are somewhat varied, and you’ll get a different answer from each person contributing to the work as to what they most enjoy about it. But whether it’s the contribution of handyman skills, the covering of the cost of materials, the time taken to discuss and refine the finish details or the pleasure of cleaning off years’ worth of green, gray and black accretions and seeing the surface shine again, all the Tanglewood residents agree that there’s a deep feeling of satisfaction in preserving an icon that is, literally, a beacon in this part of the Puget Sound—a beacon seen not only from kayaks, paddle boards and boats plying the water of Hale Passage but also from cars crossing the Fox Island bridge or driving the shoreline on Cromwell Drive, and even from planes flying to and from the nearby Tacoma Narrows airfield. And the encouraging comments posted recently on social media expressing excitement about the renovation give the Tanglewood families the warm glow of feeling that the love they are putting into this project is not unrequited.