Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Saturday

December 8, 2012

Feds sue to get 1872 lighthouse lens back

PORT AUSTIN (AP) — The federal government is suing the operator of a tiny Michigan museum after learning that an "irreplaceable" 19th-century lighthouse lens is stored in a building that has no alarm or fire sprinklers and is rarely open to the public.

The U.S. Coast Guard donated the 900-pound lens to the city of Harbor Beach in 1970 under certain conditions. In 1987, the city decided to let Huron City Museums use it, according to the lawsuit.

The government, however, said Harbor Beach and the local Grice Museum had no authority to pass the lens to someone else.

Huron City Museums is a group of restored buildings — a store, a church, an inn and others — between Port Austin and Port Hope at the tip of Michigan's Thumb. The buildings were constructed after a fire in 1881 wiped out Huron City. The buildings typically are open only a few days a week in July and August.

The 16-panel lens, which was in the Pointe Aux Barques lighthouse on Lake Huron until 1969, now is displayed in a former life-saving station. The Coast Guard estimated the lens' value at $550,000 in 1998.

"As the lens is a historical artifact, it is irreplaceable," Assistant U.S. Attorney Julia Caroff said in a lawsuit filed in October in federal court in Bay City.

"The lens is housed in a frame structure, with no air conditioning, alarm or fire suppression structure. The building is secured by a single dead-bolt lock," the lawsuit states.

Huron City Museums is run by the William Lyon Phelps Foundation.

Kathryn Parcells of suburban Detroit, who is listed on the foundation's website as chairwoman, had no immediate comment. The foundation must respond to the lawsuit by Monday.

The government said Huron City Museums has not responded to requests for information about the lens' condition or insurance. The lawsuit said the Coast Guard still technically owns the lens and can recover it if the 1970 agreement is broken.

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