Architect takes pride in 'Sulli' light

Jack Graham signs autographs at the recent celebration of the lighthouse's 50th year. (Victoria Hansen/WCIV)

By Victoria

SULLIVAN'S ISLAND, S.C. (WCIV) -- When you think of Sullivan's Island, what comes to mind? Its rustic beaches, vast dunes, or its ever-evolving tidal pools? For many, it's what you simply can't miss-- it's the lighthouse.

"The book started when we climbed to the top of the lighthouse three years ago," said author Martha Graham. She's written a children's book based on the Lowcountry landmark.

But the story for Martha really begins with her husband Jack. He drew the original design for the Sullivan's Island icon.

"He went into the Coast Guard as an enlisted man," she said. "He was just 25-years-old, and they were having a hard time with the Morris Light."

So Jack was given two weeks to come up with a plan for a new lighthouse, before he was discharged from the Coast Guard.

"Jack was an architect student in the 1950s when art broke away from tradition. It was not to copy the past, but create the future."

Jack certainly came up with a design that broke tradition. His lighthouse would be triangular, not round like others. It would stand 168 feet tall and would be painted red at the top and white on the bottom. Its light was so bright it was like having 28 million burning candles that could be seen 27 miles out to sea.

But there was a problem.

"People in Charleston couldn't stand the thing," Martha Graham said. "It was too different and too bright."

So the top was repainted black and its light toned down. But Jack Graham never knew about the changes. He didn't even know the lighthouse had been built.

"He never saw it until he was looking through Motorboat Magazine. He says, 'look, they built my lighthouse,' and we went down and toured it," Martha said.

Jack had insisted on the triangular shape, arguing it would be{}able to withstand strong{}winds. September 21, 1989 -- his theory proved true. The lighthouse was relatively unscathed by Hurricane Hugo's winds of at least 125 miles per hour.

This year, the lighthouse celebrated its 50th birthday. Built in 1962 and commissioned into active duty on June 15, 1962, it has since been transferred from the Coast Guard to the Fort Sumter National Monument. Staff there cares for it, while the Coast Guard keeps the light burning.

Jack and Martha Graham want to keep its history alive. They recently came down from their own shores of Maryland to celebrate the big 50 with a public event.

Martha brought the children's book she had just completed, three years after that first climb. It's called, Standing Straight and Tall and is based on a seagull named "Scoops" and the lighthouse he affectionately calls, "Sulli."

"I wanted to put together something children would enjoy, but had enough history adults would want it too," she said.

Martha says her now 78-year-old husband takes great pride in the lighthouse that still stands tall. He should. Children build sand castles in its shadows. Tourists take pictures for that perfect postcard. Locals can't imagine the landscape without it.

On Tuesday, August 7, the Sullivan's Island Lighthouse will play host to another celebration -- National Lighthouse Day. CLICK HERE for information on that event.