Cape Lookout National Seashore has about $8 million to go toward repairs of the 1859 lighthouse, but that’s not nearly enough to cover a total rehabilitation.
Seashore Superintendent Jeff West said recently that not only does he and the rest of the folks at the park want to repair and renovate the 163-foot lighthouse, they also want to get it back to the shape it was in when construction wrapped up in 1859.
With a total renovation, “The lighthouse will sit there without any maintenance other than painting for about another 50 to 60 years, which would be the long-term, cheapest way to do that,” said West.
The 56-mile protected seashore is made up on a handful of uninhabited barrier islands in Carteret County and is home to assorted historic structures, including the Cape Lookout Lighthouse.
West shared the latest on the lighthouse renovations Aug. 4 during a “Parlor Talk” at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center’s Morehead City gift shop at 806 Arendell St.
The park’s $8 million for lighthouse renovations is several million dollars short of what’s needed. “So that’s something that we’re working on right now, getting that money to rehabilitate the lighthouse.”
The $8 million available, West said, will be spent judiciously to accomplish as much as possible, “but It’s not going to be enough to do what we need to do to fully protect the lighthouse. It’s not going to stop us. We’re going to keep working on it. There’s some other avenues and stuff like that. It’s going to be hard, but I think it’s also worth it, right? That lighthouse means a lot to this area.”
The lighthouse and remaining property was transferred to the National Park Service in 2003 from the U.S. Coast Guard, which still controls the light.
After the Coast Guard turned the lighthouse over to the park service, the “initial inspection identified a lot of issues with the lighthouse, and we went through and did a lot of work on lighthouse,” West said, adding that much was merely surface work that didn’t take care of the long-term issues.
The need for extensive repairs of the brick lighthouse prevented its opening to the public last season. The lighthouse remains closed.
The structure is inspected early each year to ensure that it’s safe for visitors to climb. After the 2008 inspection, the structure was closed for repairs until it reopened in 2010. The lighthouse remained open until 2015, when it was again closed because of safety concerns. The lighthouse reopened again in 2017 but only until 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began.
In early 2021, West was hopeful about reopening the lighthouse, but safety concerns again prevented that from happening. The inspector and structural engineer recommended keeping the structure closed to the public until repairs were made, and the lighthouse hasn’t opened for climbing since.
“We were in the early throes of doing the lighthouse renovation project,” West said. The design firm had already planned to address the safety concerns as part of that work. “They actually even brought in their structural engineers to take a look at things from that aspect.”
The good news was that all of the main structural components of the lighthouse are sound, but the bad news is that some of what would be considered secondary structural elements, including the stairs, are unsafe.
The spiral stairs leading to the top of the lighthouse are affixed to a cast-iron center column that rises the entire height of the structure. While the center column is in great shape, West said, the stairs need repairs.
Every single step that is embedded in the brick wall of the lighthouse is rusting, reducing the thickness of the iron and causing damage to the bricks. The crossbeams at each of the seven landings are also embedded into the brick wall and rusting. Work done in the 1980s to reinforce the top of the lighthouse, included embedding metal into the upper structure, “that’s all rusting and cracking now, and by rusting, I mean in some cases to the point where the metal is no longer structurally sound.”
The ventilation system needs to be rehabilitated.
The windows in the tower were replaced in the 1970s, but not to historical standards, and they allow water intrusion. The window panes at the top of the lighthouse where the beacon is need to be replaced. West said some of those panes are probably original.
The entire metal top part of the retention ring – the watch level and lantern level at the top of the lighthouse — needs repairs as well. The recommendation is to remove everything above the tension ring and ship the parts off to a conservator for restoration and preservation before being reinstalled, West said.
Another problem is the paint. When the lighthouse was first built, its bricks were unpainted. In 1873, the now familiar black and white diamond pattern was first applied with lime-based paint, which allowed the structure to breathe. The lime paint didn’t last and required repainting every few years.
At some point, the lighthouse was covered with paint that was impervious to water vapor. “It kept the water out on the outside but kept water on the inside in, which is bad for structure,” West said. Once water gets into a masonry structure and isn’t able evaporate, it can cause the brick and the mortar to deteriorate.
“If you go in the lighthouse today or anytime in the last couple of years, there’s a fine red dust there. That’s brick dust and it’s from deteriorating bricks. The mortar itself in between bricks is also deteriorating,” he said.
West said the park service paid for a study of how to best remove all the layers of paint, down to the brick. The plan is to remove all the paint and then repaint the lighthouse with a modern paint designed to allow masonry structures to breathe.
“When renovation talk first began, I thought we’re looking at next year,” West said. “Now with the funding shortfall and difficulties with the supply side, I’m thinking we’re going to be lucky if we can get it to the point where we can reopen for the 2025 season.”
West said rehabilitation work on other Cape Lookout National Seashore structures is either about to begin, underway or complete.
An environmental assessment was done for Long Point, the narrowest part of North Core Banks, to determine what to do with the rental cabins there. The cabins were damaged during Hurricane Dorian in 2019 and have not been available for guest use since. West said that the initial idea was to rebuild the cabins where they are, but now officials plan to rebuild the cabins 5 miles north, at one of the wider parts of North Core Banks that has not been subject to overwash.
Additionally, a donor who loves historic structures has over the last few years helped pay for historic preservation, crew and materials, West said. As a result, work began recently in other parts of the Cape Lookout Village Historic District, the 810-acre area that includes the light station, the former Cape Lookout Life-Saving Station, the decommissioned Cape Lookout Coast Guard Station, the remains of a World War II Army coastal defense complex, and former fishing cottages and vacation homes.
West said two buildings are completely finished, the old Coast Guard boathouse is about 90% complete, the Coast Guard galley is getting a new roof and siding on the Les and Sally Moore dwelling complex is planned. The Barden House, formerly the 1907 keepers’ quarters, is being worked on as well.
There’s also a project for the life-saving station, which West said is the oldest building.
“The bones on that building are really, really good,” and the work will be an exterior rehabilitation, including a new roof, siding, paint, windows and doors. The foundation has to be repaired too. “It’s about a $475,000 project that will start next year.”
West said he’s trying to get a number of structures on the leasing program to help maintain the historic buildings.
“Anyhow, so we’ve got a lot of a lot of things that are happening over there at the cape and I’m pretty excited about that,” he said. “We’ll go there and go through the Cape Village and actually see the structures as they looked.”