Larry “Lighthouse Larry” Herlth is seriously into lighthouses. But not in the tiny-wooden-replica-that-sits-on-the-shelf kind of way. He’s into macho-thousand-pound-weld-it-out-of-steel kind of way. The Islamorada resident’s interest in the structures started out small, he said, but quickly blossomed into something of an obsession.
“A captain friend of mine suggested that I build one as an artistic statement for a neighbor’s jetty. I grew up in the Keys and I’ve been to Alligator Light a million times, but never really looked at it, you know,” he said.
So his friend took him out to the lighthouse where he took as many close up pictures of the construction as he could. The condition of the structure, he said, was appalling. And, yet, he discovered as he started to research the lighthouses of the Florida Keys, the historic significance was astounding.
“Did you know the Sombrero Lighthouse was built before the Eiffel Tower and that it was the tallest metal structure at the time?” he asked, his voice full of wonder. “The Keys exist today, as we know them, because of the lighthouses and they are falling apart.”
Herlth’s passion for art and lighthouses, made him a natural to design Marathon’s new city signs. In fact, he’s made two exact replicas of Sombrero Lighthouse — one for Grassy Key at the northeast end of town and one for Knight’s Key at the southeast end. The 1,000-pound steel structures will tower 14 feet above the ground made of sturdy 1-inch schedule 40 steel, 3/8ths rod and 1/8-inch sheet metal. The signs will feature a special LED light at the top and “uplights” powered by solar panels. The lighthouse signs will be installed by early April, with the collaborative help of Marathon Electric Sign and Light and Signs by Renee.
Herlth’s lighthouses were commissioned by the City of Marathon for a total cost of about $50,000 including installation. (That’s about half of what he would charge for one of his art lighthouses which are considerably smaller.) And it came about in one of those random moments only possible in the Florida Keys.
“The City of Marathon asked the chamber to look into different sign ideas and graphic artists because we’ve been so involved in the ‘beautification’ of the city,” said Marathon Chamber Chief Executive Officer Daniel Samess. “About that time I met Larry and he agreed to load one of his lighthouses on a flatbed truck and bring it to Marathon. Who should be driving by but councilmember Ginger Snead? So she stopped to look at it, too.”
By unanimous agreement, the Marathon City Council agreed to use Herlth’s lighthouses as its signature statement. For Herlth, it was a way to advertise the plight of the Keys’ lighthouses other than his publicized swims. Last summer he swam the 8 miles to and from Alligator Light and then the 10-mile round trip to Sombrero Lighthouse. He plans to get to all six of the Keys lighthouses, eventually.
“They need to be restored. Maybe the right person will see this sign and become interested [in restoring it],” Herlth said, referencing the recent privatization trend of existing lighthouses. In 2011, the General Services Administration put 12 national lighthouses on the “free” table, so long as public organizations would undertake their preservation. Late last year, Fowey Rocks Light in Biscayne National Park (near Stiltsville off Miami), was the first to go. The National Park Service assumed its upkeep.
Herlth sees the sign as a first step to restoring Sombrero Light.
“Marathon is going to have the coolest signs,” he said. “It will bring a lot of attention to Sombrero Light, and especially the millions of people that drive by the signs on their way to and from Key West.”
About the artist
Larry Herlth, 53, a lifetime resident of the Florida Keys, is a self-taught artist with a self-proclaimed tool fetish. As a boy, he said, his mom encouraged his propensity for sketching and bought him mounds of modeling clay.
“I used it to make mountains for my toy soldiers to fight on,” he said, laughing. “I don’t think that’s what she had in mind.”
In later years, he took to hanging out at Barefoot Stanley’s place. Stanley “Barefoot” Papio (1914-1982) did all sorts of odd welding job such as fixing bits and pieces for commercial fishermen. In his spare time, he created sculptures out of found metal pieces and engaged in spirited turf wars with the neighbors that complained about his sense of style. Much of his work is on permanent display at East Martello Museum in Key West.
“He really did weld barefoot,” Herlth recalled. “I couldn’t believe it, but he would just walk around on the embers.”
Herlth owns a property management company but finds the time for his … projects. On any given day he might be welding a lighthouse or creating a delicate copper orchid, exact in all its details down to the burrs on the stem. Or he might be building a standup paddle-boat for his 16-year-old daughter, Kyia, so she can take the dog, a cooler and some fishing rods out for an excursion. Or, he might be carving a gigantic hogfish out of foam, 200 times its natural size, later to be covered in fiberglass and paint, possibly to be installed in front of a restaurant.
“I work with metal, wood, foam, fiberglass; anything three-dimensional,” he said. “I don’t understand those people that call themselves master artists when all they know how to do is paint.”
Herlth said he’s proud that his niche in the art world is “no niche.” For example, he sculpted a huge piece of pink lace alabaster stone into a human heart. It sits in the lobby of the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. There’s another smaller replica, sitting in the front seat of his golf cart under a jumble of stuff.
His first ever piece of commissioned work? Oh, well, that was for Jimmy Buffet. Herlth made a custom end for a push pole carved out of lignumvitae wood featuring a bonefish and a redfish.
“I heard he said it was too pretty to use and hung it in his house instead,” he said.