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