For more than a decade the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management has allowed a private citizen to run a non-profit museum in a state-owned building, without any public access to what’s inside. The Fort Burnside Communications and Coastal Defense Museum - in the heart of Beavertail State Park - was camouflaged during World War II to look like an innocuous farmhouse. These days it’s hidden from public access. But as a result of our investigation: that’s about to change.
The road leading into Beavertail State Park does not disappoint, with spectacular ocean views just beyond the entrance, and the Beavertail Lighthouse - billed as the third oldest in the United States - at the end of the peninsula. But you’d have to look hard to find a World War II-era lookout station, hidden behind a bank of trees and vegetation, that is registered as a non-profit museum with the state of Rhode Island.
The Authorized Vehicles Only sign is the first indication this museum - in a state-owned building - is not open to the public. Just beyond, two more warning signs are attached to a six-foot high chain link fence making it clear that visitors are not welcome.
Behind that fence is the Fort Burnside Communication and Coastal Defense Museum, built in 1942 by the U.S Navy as a lookout station to keep an eye on military shipping traffic along the Rhode Island coast during World War II.
A Hummel Report investigation found the Department of Environmental Management, which manages the park and the building, has allowed a private citizen living there as a caretaker to create a non-profit museum that allows no access to the general public, even though it bills itself in annual papers filed with the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office as a museum whose mission is ``the preservation, presentation and interpretation of the history and associated artifacts related to Fort Burnside.’’
So we decided to find out for ourselves if Ft. Burnside was a working museum, visiting during a weekday in August at the height of the tourist season. An unidentified woman came to the door when we arrived.
The museum was founded in 2005 by its longtime caretaker, Mark Brown Beezer, who has lived at Ft. Burnside since 1981. There is no mention of it on DEM’s website and no signage anywhere in the park. So we went to Larry Mouradjian, DEM’s Associate Director for Natural Resource Management. This is Mouradjian from an interview earlier this year - he declined to speak with us on camera for this story.
He did tell us off-camera: ``Our priority was to keep presence in the building to deter vandalism, to have someone who could report situations that might be developing in the park that we should be aware of and ultimately do some maintenance on it.’’
And maybe someday to turn it into a museum with some public access.
DEM has signed a series of leases with Beezer going back to 1989, when he was paying $275 a month. It increased to $446/month in the 1990s, and is now at $520 per month. Mouradjian noted the rent is determined by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which says the fair market value for a structure like Ft. Burnside is $801 a month.
But Beezer receives a 15 percent discount for `surveillance’ another 10 percent for `response’ and an additional 10 percent off for the `nuisance’ of having to live there. That discounts the total to $520. Beezer is not required to file any reports with DEM. But Mouradjian says he is in touch with his staff if an incident on Beavertail happens.
Beezer gave us a tour of Ft. Burnside last week. More on that in a moment.
In a subsequent interview Mouradjian told us that he has spoken with Beezer since we first started asking questions and they are open to providing some public access to the museum in the future.
``You raised several questions that to be honest with you, over time, I didn’t necessarily consider until you raised them.’’ Mouradjian told us.
Fort Burnside has an astounding 27 rooms on three levels. There are multiple rooms in a bunker below ground, surrounded by three-foot thick concrete walls and steel.
The fort was meant to withstand bomb blasts and gas attacks that never came during the war. Beezer, a history buff and collector, has rooms filled with vintage military radio systems, some in active working condition. He was living in Jamestown in the late 1970s, knew about the fort, and made a proposal to the U.S. Navy to move in as a caretaker after the property had been vandalized. When the property was turned over to the state, he continued as a caretaker.
Beezer has has equipment that still works and every summer hosts a gathering of ham radio enthusiasts at Fort Burnside the last weekend in June to practice emergency communication procedures with municipal entities. This You Tube video captured some of it back in 2010. Beezer said more recently he was in touch with people on Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, relaying messages from the island.
Beezer has converted one room on the first floor into a kitchen with a wood pellet stove and lives in a only small portion of the house during the winter, as there is no central heating. This is his summertime bedroom. For most of the year, he has one of the best views in the state from a rooftop balcony with a nearly-360-degree view of the water. And just beyond his backyard: Beavertail State Park.
Outside he noted that the bunker was disguised to be a farmhouse during the war, complete with fake windows that really are concrete.
Beezer told us he wants to be more open, but works as an engineer for an emission-control company and is on the road a lot, adding that the building does not provide any handicapped accessibility.
But he and Mourajdian - as a result of our inquiry - are going to explore opening Ft. Burnside on an appointment basis for tours like the one he gave us. DEM also plans to create a separate page on its website featuring the history of the fort and interpretive signs nearby as it has at other DEM parks, like Fort Wetherill, just down the road in Jamestown.
There is no timetable yet for the public access.
In Jamestown, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.