Nestled under New York City's George Washington Bridge, at the edge of Fort Washington Park, a crimson lighthouse—the only lighthouse on the island of Manhattan—sends its blinking beacon across the Hudson River. Again. Immortalized in Hildegarde H. Swift's 1942 picture book, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, illustrated by Lynd Ward, the 40-foot-high structure, with its blinking light and fog bell, guided passing boats from 1921, when it was moved to this site from New Jersey, until 1932, when the bright lights of the newly built "great gray bridge" rendered the lighthouse's relatively dim beacon obsolete. Eventually the Coast Guard decommissioned the lighthouse and extinguished its light. Now it shines once more—and Harcourt has published a restored, 60th-anniversary edition of the Swift-Ward collaboration. The renaissance of book and beacon are auspiciously linked.
The Little Red Lighthouse, in which the title character frets that he is too small to be useful after an enormous bridge is built above him, played a role in saving the book's namesake—officially called the Jeffrey's Hook lighthouse—from being sold at auction in 1951. When fans of Swift's popular tale (which boasts sales of almost 400,000 copies) spoke out against the Coast Guard's plans and save-the-lighthouse editorials ran in the New York Times, the outcry helped persuade the agency to donate the lighthouse to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Several years after the lighthouse joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, the city committed $1.4 million to restore it and the surrounding park. The structure was designated a city landmark in 1991 and was listed with the Historic House Trust in 1996.
Yet the lighthouse remained dark, lacking the rare lens, last produced in the 1920s, required to illuminate the beacon. Last year, a Coast Guard curator in Maryland uncovered such a lens, and it was recently installed in the lighthouse. On September 17, in a ceremony aboard the fireboat John J. Harvey, attended by New York City parks commissioner Adrian Benepe and former parks commissioner Gordon Davis (who, during his tenure, was instrumental in saving the lighthouse), the lighthouse's beacon was switched on for the first time in more than half a century. Now powered by electricity rather than the original gas, the light flashes in the same sequence as it did in 1921—and does in The Little Red Lighthouse—one second on, two seconds off.
The Making and Remaking of a Classic
Equally heartwarming is the story of the genesis of the original book, as well as that of its new incarnation. Anna Marlis Burgard, director of new product development for Harcourt, who oversaw the production of the 60th anniversary edition, told PW how Swift's son, Hewson, described the incident that sparked the author's interest in creating the story. "The Swifts lived on Riverside Drive, not far from the lighthouse," explained Burgard, "and Hewson told me that one day as they were motoring around, they saw the first cables being laid for the George Washington Bridge. He recalled lamenting to his mother how very small the lighthouse looked in the shadow of the huge new bridge." His observation inspired Swift (whose The Railroad to Freedom was a 1933 Newbery Honor Book) to pen the story of the diminutive tower.
Ward, who was celebrated for his 1930s wordless adult novels featuring woodcuts, and who won the 1953 Caldecott Medal for The Biggest Bear, made his initial pencil sketches for the book's art while perched on the eastern bank of the Hudson River. Since both the bridge and the lighthouse were under military guard following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the artist worked surreptitiously while his wife, the author May McNeer, served as lookout. Later, Ward re-created the scenes using black ink and red and blue watercolors. But this original artwork was never used for the 1942 edition. To accommodate the flat, three-color printing processes of the era, Ward instead created three-color art based on his original watercolors.
Several years ago, Burgard was searching through archives housed in the basement of Harcourt's Orlando office when she came across a first edition of The Little Red Lighthouse. A relative newcomer to the company, she was not familiar with the book, and said, "I loved it immediately—not just the story and the art, but the look, size and feel of the book. I put it aside, thinking that I would someday do something with it. Then last September, when we talked about the fact that the book's 60th anniversary was coming up, the general feeling in the company was that we should put a sticker on the existing book and I said, 'Whoa!' I had compared the first edition to the redesigned paperback edition that had been published in the '80s, with glossy paper and art that was discolored from the original book. I knew that this was a book that deserved special attention, so I begged everyone to give me a few days before we made a decision."
After some quick research, Burgard learned that Ward's watercolors had been donated to the Museum of the City of New York, which was preparing to frame and hang the art on its walls for the first time, in December. "By this time it was October," recalled the editor, "So we had a very small window to scan the art if we were to use it in the anniversary edition. Everyone moved quickly and made it happen—including the museum staff, the company that used digital color separation to scan the watercolors, and the printer."
Harcourt also re-created the typefaces used in the 1942 book and printed the new edition on the uncoated, ivory stock that was used in the original, to create what Burgard calls "not a facsimile edition, but a restored edition that reveals, for the first time, the luminosity and subtle nuances of Ward's original art."
The publisher has packaged a smaller-format version of the book with a night light as an addition to Red Wagon Books' Lullaby Lights series and will release a paperback edition (that will replace the existing paperback) of The Little Red Lighthouse in April.
The anniversary edition of The Little Red Lighthouse and the lighthouse itself were star attractions at the 10th annual Little Red Lighthouse Festival at Fort Washington Park on September 21, attended by some 8,000 fans of both. Harcourt was a cosponsor of the event, at which James Earl Jones and Dr. Ruth Westheimer read the book aloud and the Books for Kids Foundation and the Friends of Libraries USA dedicated the lighthouse as a Literary Landmark.
"It was an astonishing event," reported Lori Benton, v-p and publisher of Harcourt Children's Books. "As the parks commissioner introduced James Earl Jones, he mentioned that it was the power of a children's book that saved the lighthouse. And to hear Jones read that book was incredible."
Benton commented on the "lovely generational sense at the festival. The parents who were there with their kids may well have been the same people who rallied to save the lighthouse when they were children. The effort back then may have started in New York, but the support came from kids all over the country. Those of us at the festival felt a part of something that is larger than a book or a lighthouse. But it was great to see how this book and this lighthouse were able to bring so many people together."