For love of lighthouses: lodging, sculptures

What is it about a lighthouse that is both mysterious and comforting, a beacon for travelers on land as well as water? Depending upon the source, 30 to 50 such structures can be found year-round in Wisconsin.

This summer, the numbers have swelled. We have at least tripled our inventory of lighthouses, and all of the newcomers are much flashier in design than intensity of light beam. That is just as it should be.

Artists in two cities – Racine and Sturgeon Bay – have transformed almost 100 miniature lighthouses into works of glitz, humor, beauty and moodiness. The 5- and 6-foot tall sculptures – thanks to paint, mosaics, attachments and imagination – tell stories and mesmerize as they decorate downtown streets.

Before autumn, each will be auctioned, and these projects have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for local charities.

This is the second summer for “Beacons Around the Bay” in Sturgeon Bay, and this year artists had the option of creating a sculpture from scratch, instead of altering and decorating a blank but uniform molding.

A walking tour map, available through www.sturgeonbay.net and 800-301-6695, shows how to find the 20 funky lighthouses, which are made of wire, wood, grapevines, stained glass and other materials. They will be auctioned Sept. 1 at Bay View Park.

Before lighthouses, this community made fish its investment for five summers. Year after year, local artists jazzed up models of sturgeon, a project that raised about $270,000. One rendition went for $21,000.

Sturgeon Bay is the biggest city in Door County, which – even before the newest public art endeavors – had more lighthouses than any other county in the nation. For more about its 10 full-sized beauties: www.doorcounty.com, 800-527-3529.

In Racine, 76 artsy lighthouses are sprinkled around downtown and will be auctioned Sept. 15 at Memorial Hall. Some of the entrants have whimsical themes: King Kong, for example, clings onto “Lighthouse Fit for a King.”

Other artists turn the fiberglass models into a Chinese pagoda, cabaret table and “Star Wars” characters.

Maps with sculpture locations are available from downtown merchants. The Downtown Racine Corp. project benefits nonprofit entities, but the group declines to disclose how much money has been raised. The public art projects began in 2002, and sculpture themes previously included dogs, cats, bears, fish/otters and birds/birdbaths.

This year’s theme is inspired by Lake Michigan’s 1880 Wind Point Lighthouse, an icon for the area. The lighthouse is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 5, Sept. 2 and Oct. 7, when a dozen people at a time can walk 144 steps to the catwalk.

Of the 315 Great Lakes lighthouses, Wind Point is the tallest at 108 feet. To reserve a climbing time, call 262-639-2026. For more about the Racine area: www.racine.org, 800-272-2463.

Head northeast, and it’s possible to become a lighthouse keeper for a week or two. Applications to stay at the 1852 Grand Traverse Lighthouse, at the northern tip of Leelanau County, Michigan, are being taken for the April 1 to Dec. 15, 2008 season.

Excellent health, ability to work long hours and ease in speaking to the public are required. (There is a museum and gift shop on the premises.) If selected as a lighthouse keeper, the fee is $220 to participate.

For more: www.grandtraverselighthouse.com, 231-386-7195.

For a shorter stay, consider the 1892 Two Harbors Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast, about 25 miles northeast of Duluth, Minn. Overnight guests become assistant lighthouse keepers, but the workload is light.

Each of the four rooms has a Lake Superior view. Rates are $99 to $160 per night, based on double occupancy. For more: www.lighthousebb.org, 888-832-5606.

Not a seafarer’s beacon, but in a tremendous location with reasonable prices is the Lighthouse Inn, Two Rivers. The family-owned hotel seems extremely plain on the outside, but furnishings are clean and comfortable. Staff is friendly, views from the bar and restaurant excellent, and food quality fine. Seafood is a big part of the dinner menu.

The 5.5-mile lakeshore Mariners Trail, adjacent to the inn, connects Manitowoc and Two Rivers. Room rates through October, based on double occupancy, are $100 to $146. For more: www.lhinn.com, 800-228-6416. The Lighthouse Inn is at 1515 Memorial Drive, Two Rivers.

For more about lighthouses and breakwater lights in Wisconsin or elsewhere, consult the U.S. Coast Guard at www.uscg.mil.