Restoration of Palmer Park's iconic lighthouse to restore original charm

Ben Wilson
The Detroit News

Detroit — An iconic lighthouse in northwest Detroit will shine again. 

The ornamental structure from the late-1800s stands next to Lake Frances in Detroit's Palmer Park and is undergoing a $55,000 restoration. 

The People for Palmer Park have been overseeing improvements at the site, donated to the city by former U.S. Senator Thomas Palmer in 1893, since 2011. 

Rochelle E. Lento, board president People for Palmer Park, talks about the renovation of the historic Palmer Park lighthouse. Palmer Park, August 12, 2021, Detroit, Mi. (Clarence Tabb, Jr.)

“What we did early in our history was make a master plan for the entire park,” said Rochelle Lento, president of the 18-member group created in 2011 to save the park from closure. "And we have been systematically working on a lot of restoration.”

The lighthouse project is the latest for the 296-acre park. Renovations have been made on the playground and 135-year-old log cabin over the past decade.

Lento said it was in disrepair until four years ago, when an anonymous donor supplied the money to restore it. 

“Our scope of restoration mirrors the historic structure,” said Lento, adding the lighthouse is lined with custom-made shingles to match the original siding. “Everything we’re doing is exactly the way it was.”

City-based Artisan Contracting was hired to complete the restoration work. Owner Shane Overbey regards the lighthouse as "an iconic little building in Detroit."

The company is spot repairing the structure, fixing the foundation, removing rotten wood and adding new windows. It's also running electricity under the water to illuminate red, white and blue LED lights. 

Next up is restoration of the entire lake.

“We have a ($300,000) grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and we’re partnering with the city of Detroit,” Lento said. “It’s a very big undertaking.”

That project will include cleaning out the lake and improving the shoreline, Lento said. 

Other improvements across the park have included refurbishing the handball courts, which the Michigan Handball Association helped fund; tennis courts were resurfaced with the help of the U.S. Tennis Association. 

The log cabin, built in 1885 for Palmer and his wife, Lizzie, was restored in part with more than $65,000 in volunteer donations. Detroit also spent about $400,000 a few years ago to install a new cedar shake roof, stabilize the foundation and improve the mortar between the exterior wood logs.

The  log cabin was built in 1885 for former Senator Thomas W. Palmer and his wife, Lizzie Merrill Palmer at Palmer Park, Tuesday, June 20, 2017.

Lento first moved to Palmer Woods in 1992 and was a founding member of the People for Palmer Park.

“I remember saying to my husband, ‘It's gonna be so wonderful to live near this big park and be able to take the kids there,’” she said, but her first visit was discouraging.

“I never went back," she said. 

Lento said illicit activity and a lack of suitable areas for her children to play kept her away from the park for years.

“When somebody came back around and said we'd like to restore the park, I said, ‘Well, we need to restore that park,’” she said.

Joel Stone, curator emeritus for the Detroit Historical Society, said the lighthouse is a “curiosity” and he’s glad the group is restoring the structure.

The restoration "raises the stakes for that neighborhod and raises the profile," Stone said.

The park was established when Palmer donated 140 acres to the city, on the condition that the forest there would be preserved.

Palmer fought for women’s suffrage and immigration restrictions during his six years in Congress from 1883 to 1889 and is attributed to the saying, “equal rights for all, special privileges to none,” according to the People for Palmer Park. 

The couple was among the Detroit Institute of Arts founders, and Palmer was the museum’s first president.

Palmer died in 1913 of injuries related to a car crash. His wife died in 1916.

During daily three-mile walks around the park, Lento said she sees children playing in the park, athletes practicing on the tennis courts and people doing yoga. Illicit activity has all but vanished from most of the park, she said. 

“Once this lake is cleaned up, I can easily see weddings and graduations coming here,” she said. 

Her feelings about the park mimic a line from the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams.”

“One of the sayings from that movie is 'If you build it, they will come,’ ” she said. “That’s what’s happening.”