Santa Barbara, California, dubbed the American Riviera, is a tourist destination with a lot to offer all year long. There are beaches, shopping, and museums, just to name a few of the attractions. But one thing that’s lacking is a lighthouse to visit.
There used to be one, similar in design to San Diego’s famous Old Point Loma Lighthouse. But an earthquake almost a century ago completely destroyed it, and it was replaced with a modern structure. The grounds around its modern non-descript replacement are off limits to the public and it can be fully seen only from the Pacific Ocean.
But there’s good news—lighthouse enthusiasts can “feed the need” for their lighthouse appetite near State Street and Stearn’s Wharf in Santa Barbara, with the beach just on the other side of the road… at Rusty’s Pizza!
You can’t miss it—part of the building is a faux lighthouse. And that’s not all. Step inside and look around, and you will think you stepped into a real lighthouse museum, from a 4th order lens to a United States Lighthouse Service river tender’s bell—and a whole lot more in between.
The restaurant’s design and collection are the creation of the CEO of Rusty’s, Carol Duncan, and her then-husband Roger. “In the beginning, we bought a restaurant called the Crab Shack in ‘94”, says Carol. “We decided to change the motif and thought about a lighthouse. As we got into it, it just kind of gained speed and we became very interested in lighthouses and began doing a lot of research.”
Ms. Duncan says that they have been to dozens of lighthouses along the west coast. She’s spoken with personnel of the U.S. Coast Guard and several lighthouse museums.
In 1995, they reopened the Crab Shack as the Keeper’s Lighthouse Restaurant. “That is why we ended up collecting so much stuff that we put in the restaurant,” says Carol.
Tyler Duncan, Carol’s son and president of Rusty’s, adds, “They started their lighthouse collecting hobby with Harbour Lights pieces, which led to bigger things from there.” Carol adds, “We have oil cans to dustpans… As we got interested in things, we wanted a little piece of it all and we wanted things to show people.”
After a few years they decided it would be easier to run the eatery as part of their Rusty’s Pizza chain. There was no pizza in the immediate area and, as Carol says, “Do what we do best.”
When asked if the lighthouse collection was a business decision or more the result of a severe case of the “lighthouse bug,” Carol answers, “I’d say that maybe ten percent of it was business. Ninety percent of it, we had the bug. We just got enthralled and it was so interesting working with all the different people that we got to work with all over the United States, and we were able to buy a real lighthouse lens, which was from the Shinnecock Lighthouse in New York.”
The Duncans came across the lens by accident. “That was just a fluke,” says Carol. “There’s a little antique shop in Newport Beach, California that we always stop at on the Pacific Coast Highway, because we were always interested in old things and antiques. I walked in there one day and there was this lens. They had just gotten it in (after it had been recently discovered in a Long Island garage.) We were able to obtain it and that was something that was really wonderful.”
The lens wasn’t as pristine then as you will see it today, in its acrylic display by the cash register. A good portion of the individual original lens pieces were missing. It took about a year to repair it, with the missing pieces of glass fabricated in England. “So I’d say all of that part was a labor of love. It couldn’t have been a business decision because that would be too costly,” Carol says, laughing.
The tower of their faux light was a tall order, too. Carol elaborates, “As we built the tower we tried to be as authentic as possible. The stairway we had cast in Canada. We got patterns from the steps at St. Augustine and a couple of other Florida lighthouses and then the height and feel of the light we got from Coquille River Light in Oregon.”
That project was impacted by fate, too, as Carol explains, “When we took our lens to be fixed, the guy had put us up in a little hotel in the town of Bandon, Oregon. And when we woke up in the morning, there was a lighthouse right out there and it was the same height as we needed (about 44 feet), so we really used a lot of that in our design as well.”
Although the lantern does not contain a lighthouse lens, it has a maritime-type optic with a working light. The light is not listed as a private aid to navigation, but the Duncans know people rely on it.
Carol says they were asked by the Coast Guard to make their light an official aid to navigation, but she decided not to because of a dream. “I woke up in the middle of the night one night from a nightmare,” she says. In my dream, a great big boat had followed the light right up on the beach to the Pizza Parlor!”
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2012 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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