REVIEW of "Perspective: Robbins Reef"

New book illuminates colorful New York lighthouse history
A review by Michael J. Fressola, art critic and guest contributor

On the book cover is a detail of Pamela Talese's 2015 oil on panel, The Barbican of the Kill van Kull.

On the book cover is a detail of Pamela Talese's 2015 oil on panel, The Barbican of the Kill van Kull.

Perspective: Robbins Reef, the latest book published by the Noble Maritime Collection, is a history of the 133-year old lighthouse (just off the Island’s North Shore), an exhibit catalogue, and an illustrated progress report.

Adopted by the museum, Robbins Reef was pretty careworn by 2011 when the museum signed the deed.  Nineteen months later, a 32-foot seawater surge—Superstorm Sandy slammed the place, wreaking havoc. Fortunately, the damage was reparable. Other harbor beacons didn’t weather the onslaught.  Old Orchard was obliterated. Romer Shoal Light was severely compromised.

Today Robbins Reef is a work in progress. Every few weeks, a volunteer work detail sails out to paint, scrape walls, clean, and make repairs.  Restored windows have been installed.  When all is shipshape again, tours and educational programs will be launched there.

The place has history.  Arguably, no lighthouse in the area has quite such a compelling backstory.  Researched by the Collection’s founding director Erin Urban and curator Megan Beck, the story centers on the indefatigable Kate Walker (1848-1931), the keeper who made her home in the light for 33 years and raised her family there singlehandedly.

While photographs depict a tiny, 4’10” woman in ladylike Victorian attire, hers was hardly a genteel life.  Before electrification, oil lamps provided the guiding light and they required refilling every few hours.  An uninterrupted night’s sleep? All but impossible.

Walker, widowed at 42, inherited the job from her husband.  She made her own repairs, braved all kinds of weather, and rescued 50 shipwrecked people during her tenure.  And guess who rowed the kids back and forth to Staten Island to school.  Still her lighthouse home had all the comforts of the day, including a phonograph (she liked Caruso).  She entertained friends and family there.  Within the harborscape, Robbins Reef occupies prime real estate.  Situated picturesquely at the mouth of the Kill van Kull, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, it figured in prints and paintings produced by marine artists.

Perspective: Robbins Reef includes a history of the lighthouse and its most famous keeper, Kate Walker and her family. It is also a catalogue for the exhibition Robbins Reef Lighthouse: A Home in the Harbor, and features color reproductions of all the art in the show, including Kathy Krantz Fieramosca’s oil on linen, Homage to Kate Walker.

Perspective: Robbins Reef includes a history of the lighthouse and its most famous keeper, Kate Walker and her family. It is also a catalogue for the exhibition Robbins Reef Lighthouse: A Home in the Harbor, and features color reproductions of all the art in the show, including Kathy Krantz Fieramosca’s oil on linen, Homage to Kate Walker.

As a catalogue, Perspective documents the exhibit Robbins Reef Lighthouse: A Home in the Harbor (through 2017).  Original furnishings recreate the round-roomed Walker household. What fun to be a child in such a setting.

As a fine-art showcase, the book includes historic depictions like Sunset, New York Bay, painted by the gifted Hudson River School romantic Edward Moran (1829-1901).  Moran presented the lighthouse gloriously backlit in a golden sunset.  With more realistic intentions, Noble drew the place quickly and fluidly at eye level, while rowing himself around the harbor.

New works of art, commissioned by the museum and exhibited during the run of A Home in the Harbor, amplify the viewer’s sense of Robbins Reef and deepen the acquaintance with Kate Walker.  Among the participants are museum trustee and noted marine artist John Stobart, R.A., and William Behnken, N.A., Michael Falco, Kathy Krantz Fieramosca, Elle Finn, DB Lampman, Michael McWeeney, Denise Mumm, Roger Sherry, Stephen Szoke (a descendant of Kate Walker), Bascove, and Sarah Yuster.

The 97-page soft-cover book, handsomely designed by Assistant Director Ciro Galeno, Jr. and written by Erin Urban, is available at the museum or through its digital bookstore.

Light, Tight, and Bright

The Noble Crew in action at Robbins Reef Lighthouse

This restored window is located in the curved stairwell, outside the sitting room.  Stripped of a century’s worth of paint, the window casement and sill are made of oldgrowth heart pine. PHOTO: Peter Yuschak

This restored window is located in the curved stairwell, outside the sitting room.  Stripped of a century’s worth of paint, the window casement and sill are made of oldgrowth heart pine. PHOTO: Peter Yuschak

Last summer and fall were productive at Robbins Reef.  With the help of the folks at Miller’s Launch and the skill of their great captains diving through wakes, we went out often.  We restorated eight casement windows that had been shrouded in plywood and steel since the Coast Guard automated the light in 1966. The round rooms on the first three levels and the landings in the stairwell are full of light. It is astonishing.

With funds from the New York Landmarks Conservancy, coupled with matching funds from the museum’s art auction and the extraordinary help of the Noble Crew under the supervision of craftsman Roger Sherry, we ground down and painted the exterior casements, removed the paint from the interior casements, and removed the windows. Sherry then brought them to his studio in Virginia to restore them. As expected, the window frames and the old-growth heart-pine interior casements and sills had withstood salt air since 1883. Most of the glass is intact, and some panes have a faint pattern of light-blue pitting. The copper slides, the tracks the windows travel up and down in, and original pins that hold the windows open that we carefully retrieved are testaments to 19th century craftsmen.

The light that fills the kitchen, sitting room, and Kate’s bedroom is amplified by the walls and ceilings, which we scraped and painted white. Kate said she had to keep the place “bright with paint,” and we will too. We also removed the interior doors and stripped them. (Try doing that in a place with no running water). Under the many layers of paint dating back to Kate’s time we found heart pine and oak.

We are so grateful to Crew members Gerry Barton, Andrew Blancero, Cooper, Laura Kennedy, Greg Orlando, Peter Patron, Barbara Pezzengrilli, Tim Pouch, Annie Rech, Nan Smith, Chris Steffins, Damon Urban, and Lisa and Peter Yuschak—and to our trustees Brian De Forest, Kevin Mahoney, Eileen Montanez, and Sam Turvey. They endured some mighty dirty weather!


Lighthouse Log Book is a series of stream of consciousness writings by Executive Director Erin Urban after each Crew date at Robbins Reef.  It’s informal and meant to impart a sense of the energy of the volunteers and the work they accomplish in regular seven-hour workdays to Robbins Reef Lighthouse.

Our latest book, "Perspective: Robbins Reef"

Perspective: Robbins Reef, the first book ever written about Robbins Reef Lighthouse, is available for sale at the Noble Maritime Collection.  The book is not only a catalog of the exhibition, Robbins Reef Lighthouse: A Home in the Harbor, it also contains a history of the lighthouse and features the story of Kate Walker, who kept the light from 1886 until 1919.

On the book cover is a detail of Pamela Talese's 2015 oil on panel, The Barbican of the Kill van Kull.

Click here to purchase.

"Perspective: Robbins Reef" Book Signing this Sunday, September 18!

Perspective: Robbins Reef, the first book ever written about Robbins Reef Lighthouse, is hot off the press and will be available for sale at the Noble Maritime Collection beginning at a book-signing on Sunday afternoon, September 18, from 2 until 4 PM.  The book is not only a catalog of the exhibition, Robbins Reef Lighthouse: A Home in the Harbor, it also contains a history of the lighthouse and features the story of Kate Walker, who kept the light from 1886 until 1919.

It would be great to see you at the book signing. Admission to the museum is by donation; the book sells for $25.00.

On the book cover is a detail of Pamela Talese's 2015 oil on panel, The Barbican of the Kill van Kull.

Click here to purchase