Updated: Sep 22, 2021
I first met John Burhani in November 2011 shortly after I purchased Fairport Harbor West Lighthouse from a government auction. He had just purchased the Kenosha (WI) North Pier Lighthouse and was working on bringing it back to life as his art studio. John was a witty, energetic, and enthusiastic guy with a heart of gold. Although we never met in person, we were among a small fraternity of new lighthouse keepers who purchased dilapidated lighthouses from the federal government to save them from the wrecking ball and give them a new life. Trust me, the fraternity had only a handful of members in 2011.
John was an artist and painted stunning scenes of life on Lake Michigan, especially sailboats. When he wasn’t sailing, windsurfing, kitesurfing or otherwise on the water, he painted. His plan was to restore the Kenosha Lighthouse as his artist’s studio, so he’d always have an amazing view of the water.
In those early years of 2012, 2013 and 2014, we chatted, shared tips and ideas, and commiserated about renovating our respective lighthouses. In March of 2012, he wrote to me: “Hi, It’s John the lighthouse guy in WI. Have you gotten going with your lighthouse yet? Keep in touch! JB.” I thoroughly appreciated the support as there were few other people who could understand the daunting task of renovating a lighthouse.
John kept me apprised of his progress – which I envied given that his lighthouse was a much smaller project than mine. In a 2012 Facebook post he wrote about this lighthouse: “The CG [Coast Guard] is in the process of converting the light to solar. I was out there today with my electrician who is going to rewire and simplify the electric system. I need to work on ventilation. I found some really cool portholes at a used shop in Florida that match the originals and I need to install them. Then scraping and painting this spring. I am not going to put in plumbing, and may just have a portapottie for this year, but may try to put in a rain barrel so I have some water to wash things etc... It’s going to be just for day use, so I think this will work out well. Someday I am going to come visit your lighthouse. It’s so much larger that I am sure there are more possibilities. Take care. JB” Sadly, John never got to visit my lighthouse as he was diagnosed with cancer soon thereafter, fought a long and valiant fight, but passed away in May 2015.
When it came time to bring the east-facing transom windows at Fairport Harbor West back to life, I immediately thought of John. I knew they needed an outstanding and unique piece of art to set them off and make them a focal point of the room. I thought of John, his art, and his dream to convert the Kenosha Lighthouse into an artist’s studio. I contacted his widow, Heather McGee, and asked her if I could create something in John’s honor. She graciously agreed and referred me to a local Wisconsin stained-glass artist, Russell Christensen, who knew John and had spent time at the Kenosha lighthouse. After an internet contest soliciting ideas from artists around the world, I settled on the design of a sunrise in the east and a moonrise facing west. I provided the final designs to Russell who masterfully turned them into stunning stained-glass pieces just the right size to fit the transom window openings. In 2021, the transoms were finally mounted back in their original location and backlighting was added for an even more dramatic effect. Every time I look at them, I think of John and take solace in knowing that his influence as an artist and modern-day lighthouse keeper continues to live on at Fairport Harbor West. May he rest in peace.