A spinning, glowing sphere sits atop a 19th-century lighthouse in Plum Gut Harbor. As the Cross Sound Ferry departs from Orient Point, riders on the boat can see the sphere illuminate Long Island Sound.
Over the past five years, sculptor Randy Polumbo has converted part of the interior of the Orient Point Light into an artist’s residency. This spring, the compact space will be open for artists, writers, composers, and whomever wants to be “lost at sea for a week or more,” Polumbo said. The lighthouse remains functional.
The artist, also the founder of eco-construction company Plant, is known for his gargantuan “lodestars,” like ones that he’s constructed for Burning Man festival and Coachella in 2018, and immersive “grottos” — like the Orient Point lighthouse, which he named Plum Gut Grotto. Polumbo said his art practice concentrates on these immersive experiences.
Polumbo, who has been visiting Long Island for over 25 years, did not set out to purchase the structure that was put on the market in June 2011 by the General Services Administration. He said he was searching online on auction websites for large, damaged fuel tanks for an art project and became “fascinated” with the cylindrical structure. He purchased the lighthouse via an auction.
“My vision was not entirely clear then, but some inkling of the idea of an immersive environment, my Plum Gut Grotto, and a residency program for other creatives, artists, writers has now come true,” he wrote in an email Sunday.
When he took over the space, lead paint was peeling off the walls, mold was present, and it was covered in bird droppings. Cleaning it, he said, was “perhaps the biggest project next to the grotto.”
He slowly made improvements as his budget allowed. It began with cleanup and installation of solar panels, then he converted the upholstery. The kitchen and studio space — complete with appliances, outlets, USB ports and a toilet — were completed this summer.
Polumbo, who said he has a “soft spot for forlorn and enchanted [structures] that are at risk,” always uses non-toxic, green and recycled materials when possible. The iron structure, wood and paint have been sealed with a clear, soy-based acrylic sealer. The grotto’s sphere is made of polished aluminum, blown glass and LED lights.
“The grotto is rather like a ‘walk-in kaleidoscope,’ in which you can bring your friends or gaze out at the ocean,” he said.
However, the lighthouse has structural issues because some of its base is missing. Water often seeps into the structure, he said. There are ongoing maintenance repair challenges – but with his 35 years of experience in high-end residential construction, he’s learned the skills to take care of it.
Polumbo hopes the lighthouse, which was nearly torn down, will become a nonprofit residency program that also hosts his grotto.
“I love the idea of preserving this and adaptively reusing it … for the purpose of creative voyages and production,” he said. “I am thinking one or two weeks a month the public can visit and see the work our residents present, my grotto, and the lighthouse.”