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Saving the Lifesaver

Gary and Judy Studer revel in the storied past of their unique home

When Gary and Judy Studer relax in their Caswell beach home enjoying the sounds of the surf just outside their back door, they occasionally hear a tentative knock on their front door. Typically, they welcome it.  If it’s not one of their many new friends, it’s often just another curious visitor wondering what the heck they’re doing living in such a strange house on the North Carolina coast--lookout tower and all!

The Studers love sharing their lives with anyone who wants to know what it’s like to live in a 115-year-old former life-saving station. Now, it has become their mission to save it.  For the Studers, it’s all about keeping a legacy alive--and living right in the middle of it.

From the Midwest to the Atlantic Coast

When the Studers saw the former U.S. Life-Saving Station for the first time, they never imagined it would become their home. However, when they learned it was on the market, the long-time St. Louis residents and history buffs saw an unusual preservation opportunity.

“We had never been to North Carolina", Judy says.  "In fact, we thought our next chapter would take us to Vermont or Maine where we would find an old grist mill or schoolhouse. Instead, we found the romance of the sea irresistible. We didn’t even know what a life-saving station was. More than a chapter, we’ve opened an entire book!”

That book includes chapters about moving Gary’s printing sales office to the East Coast, as well as transferring Judy’s consulting business (now called BTDT Group--as in ”Been There, Done That”). Judy shares her new office and work with another St. Louis transplant, Larry Parker, who introduced the Studers to the area and also to the realtor who showed them the lifesaving station.

With both of their offices nearby, the Studers can enjoy their unique house seven days a week. Their life is immersed in the history and memorabilia of lifesaving stations. They've furnished their home with eclectic items from their extensive world travels and established a new network of friends who share their passion for themed dinners.

Saving the Station

The building the Studers purchased back in 1999 was originally part of the U.S. Life-Saving Service’s network of 279 stations on the Atlantic and Pacific, and the Great Lakes. Founded in the 1870s (a pre-cursor to today’s U.S. Coast Guard), the Life-Saving Service continued until 1915. Either the sea or the wrecking ball has claimed many o fthe stations, but several survived and now thrive in other uses.

Built in 1889, the Studers’ home was originally located across the street near the Oak Island Lighthouse, where crews watched for ships in distress from the lookout tower. Braving hurricane-force winds and huge waves, the men rowed out to shipwrecks and saved passengers and crews of every nationality.

The Life-Saving Service and the Coast Guard occupied the building until the early-1940s. That’s when, the Studers suspect, the new owner moved the station across the street, turned 90 degrees, and situated it on the wide beach. From then on, it generally served as a second or third residence for a variety of owners who, didn’t become enmeshed in its history as much its new caretakers.

However, because the station had already served as a home, the Studers moved in before undertaking much renovations. “Our vision was not to transform it, but to preserve it,” says Gary. “In its early days, crews lived in the station only seasonally. As the first people to live here year-round, we prefer to think that we are bringing the life-saving station back to life!”

The Studers had to replace much of the salt-corroded siding and all 29 sets of the original shutters, each of which was a different size.  From paint colors to the original floor in the lookout tower, they've mainted the building much as it's always been.

Touring History

Visitors enter the house through a narrow door, where a plaque identifies the building as listed on the National Register of Historic Places (a designation Gary worked diligently to achieve). Inside is a virtual boatload of memorabilia about the building and the U.S. Life-Saving Service.

Upstairs, the three original rooms where seven or eight surfmen spent nights have been combined to create the master bedroom. Overnight guests stay in the smaller keeper’s room, which offers a beautiful view of the lighthouse and the ocean. What was once a second-floor storage area now serves as a modern bathroom.

Worn steps lead to the third floor lookout tower. The Studers love taking visitors up to this cozy spot for the view and a little slice of the past.

Learning about their home's history brought Judy and Gary into a focused group of preservationists. “We even joined the U.S. Life-Saving Service Heritage Association, where we’ve found many others interested in this part of our maritime history,” says Gary.

The house is now furnished with antiques gathered during the Studers’ extensive travels, and many items specifically relate to their house. “We were fortunate that this was a government building, because we now have framed copies of logbooks, photos of the original building and crews, and much more,” says Gary.

The last surviving surfman passed away this past spring, but not before the couple invited him to spend a morning touring his former workplace. He shared his recollections, and the Studers honor his legacy with a picture of him in uniform hanging in their dining room.

“We consider it a rare privilege to live in a place with this much documented history,” says Judy. “We feel we are just passing through, as many before us have done. In the living room, we have a time capsule that will ultimately chronicle our existence here.” Future owners will then better understand how the Studers saved a lifesaving station.