Middle Ground Lighthouse
Getting to Bob and Joan Gonsoulin’s summer home is no simple task. It requires driving out onto a pier, hopping on a boat and cruising on the James River. Once the boat is anchored, guests carefully step up onto a small platform, then climb a ladder to reach the entrance. And once they arrive, they wonder how the Gonsoulins got this exceptional home (on the water, no less) for just $31,000.
Owning a lighthouse wasn’t something that Bob (a radiation safety officer for the Virginia Health Department) and Joan (a dental hygienist) had always dreamt of—especially not Joan. When Bob read that the 1891 Middle Ground Lighthouse would be for sale at a government auction, he imagined an ideal location to bring their kids’ Sea Scout troop. “He asked me if I wanted to buy a lighthouse,” Joan remembers. “I knew if I said no, it would be my fault for the rest of his life. So I said yes, knowing there was absolutely no way we’d get this lighthouse.”
Well, wouldn’t you know—Bob got the lighthouse—which they own with Joan’s sister and brother-in-law (Jackie and Dan Billingsley, who Joan insists never do anything unusual). “The lighthouse is different; nobody else does this,” Joan says. “And that’s him—that’s Bob.”
In the beginning, this dream home seemed more like a nightmare. “I wouldn’t sit down for two months,” Joan says. “It was terrible; we had dead birds, dead fish, rust.” A door in the watch room had been stuck open for decades, allowing the rain to come in and inviting seagulls to make the lighthouse their nest. “I remember coming to this ladder,” Bob says today in the watch room. “It had seagull poop like stalactites.”
Thankfully, they had some help. The Gonsoulins had four college-aged kids (all engineering students), and the Billingsleys had two. The kids would bring their friends home from college to work on the lighthouse during breaks. “We always do stuff as a family,” Bob says. “We would have up to 20 people volunteering out here. We did everything ourselves.” The group came with natural-born motivation and talent, and what they didn’t know, they learned as they went. “We made a lot of mistakes,” Bob says. “But you don’t see the mistakes.”
Ten years, 350 gallons of paint, and close to $200,000 later, the lighthouse has been completely renovated, and although Joan stresses that it’s a never-ending project, walking inside today is like visiting an adorable, six-story cottage completely surrounded by water.
In the cellar there’s a cistern that collects rainwater used for washing dishes and taking showers outside.
There’s also a closet full of batteries charged by solar panels on the deck—providing most of the power coming to the lighthouse. A generator operates the air conditioning, microwave and blender, if the Gonsoulins should happen to make margaritas.
Up one level the kitchen holds cabinets, a full-sized fridge and a curved table and bench made from hundred-year-old bald cypress wood found in the lighthouse. This was built by Joan’s sister, Jackie and their father, Eddie Prokop, a woodworker who built many custom pieces for the lighthouse before he died at age 88. “It gave him a project,” Bob says. “And it really added years to his life.”
A journey up a spiral staircase leads to the bedroom, featuring beautiful hard pine floors and exposed brick walls with a mural of the James River painted by Joan and Jackie’s other sister, Elaine. There’s a gold and white iron-post bed and nautical décor resting on curved bookshelves (another project of Eddie’s). Joan painted a compass on the bedroom and kitchen ceilings to provide a sense of direction. “It’s hard telling which way is which,” Bob explains. “If you go up those spiral stairs, everything turns on you.”
The fourth level, painted a cheery yellow, serves as the lighthouse’s living room. Joan crafted turquoise cushions to fit the circular sofa—again, made in the family—which faces a big screen TV getting its signal from a small, rabbit ear antenna. “It works great,” Bob says with a grin.
Eddie installed porthole windows in this room, giving it the nautical feel it so deserves. Beside the sofa sits a small table bearing a game of Monopoly—Lighthouse edition, naturally.
Above the living room is the watch room, which had been ‘decorated’ with graffiti when they bought it. They kept some of the original graffiti, and they allow visitors to sign their names on the wall, along with a message. One sentiment reads, “When I heard you bought a light house I thought you were crazy—Now that I have seen the lighthouse … I still think you’re crazy!”
At the very top is the whole purpose for the lighthouse. A new LED light sits at the center of the small, circular room, allowing a crystal clear 360-degree view. “In a storm, this is a fun place to be ‘cause you can see everything,” Bob says.
Another spot for an amazing view is out on the top deck. A quick gaze encompasses the Norfolk naval base, the international terminal, Newport News Shipbuilding, the Monitor-Merrimac and the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel—not to mention the occasional dolphin or fish bursting from the water.
Outside on the lower deck, Bob points to where the lighthouse previously had a hand crank used to hoist up boats, something that he’s is hoping to get working again. “I’m sure we can do it,” Bob says with confidence. “You just fiddle with it. If it doesn’t work today, you come back tomorrow, and you think about it. One of the kids will come up with an idea.”