The last keeper of the lighthouse retired in the 1930s. After that, the beacon was automated, and the United States Coast Guard maintained the workings of the light. In the 1980s, the Coast Guard began to lease historic lighthouses to local preservation groups who could preserve and restore these important structures.
In December, 1986, through special agreement with both the Coast Guard and the State of New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry, the Cape May Lighthouse was leased to the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC). A non-profit organization headquartered at the Emlen Physick Estate in Cape May, MAC assumed the responsibility of restoring the lighthouse, interpreting it as a historic site and opening it to the public.
The process of restoration took over 15 years (1987-2002), and was funded by nearly $2 million in grants, principally from the New Jersey Historic Trust and the Inter-Modal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) program, administered by the State Department of Transportation.
MAC supervised the restoration of the lighthouse windows and doors, the addition of safety improvements, the restoration of the oil house which is at the entrance to the lighthouse grounds, the restoration of the lantern roof and windows, the interior walls and staircase, an archaeological investigation that located the original privies and walkways and the restoration of the grounds.
The lighthouse has also been re-painted in its original color scheme, in which the tower is a light beige and the lantern is red.
Nearly 100 thousand visitors a year now experience a visit to the top of the lighthouse, participating in a century old rite of a visit to the Jersey Shore.
Hours of operation vary throughout the year. The tower is open daily, April through November, and on weekends most of the rest of the year. The grounds, ground floor, tower and watch room gallery are open to the public. All tours of the tower are self-guided.