Digest>Archives> March 2003

Historic Lighthouse Gets Interior Makeover for Tourists

By Steve Loomis, AIA


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The Old Cape Henry Lighthouse.
Photo by: A. Brian Super, AIA

In business, climbing the ladder to get to the top can be a tricky affair. And that was the case as well for tourists who wanted to view the Atlantic Ocean from the observation platform of the nation’s oldest commissioned lighthouse here. Now, thanks to some sensitive architectural modifications, that trip “to the top” will be a lot easier at historic Cape Henry Lighthouse in Virginia.

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Inside the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse.
Photo by: A. Brian Super, AIA

The rock structure was built in 1792 overlooking the Chesapeake Bay’s southern entry from the Atlantic Ocean and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Over the past 200 years the lighthouse has undergone a variety of restorations, including some that improved access to the visitor observation platform where a beacon once guided ships.

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The New Cape Henry Lighthouse, as seen from the ...
Photo by: A. Brian Super, AIA

The lighthouse is the symbol of the City of Virginia Beach, itself a popular family resort area and tourist destination. Over the years the City has maintained the old structure and opened it for visitors. The lighthouse originally had ladders up to narrow hatches for connecting the service deck, watch deck, and lantern deck. A concrete slab at one point was installed to cover the lantern deck opening where the lens was once positioned.

Increased visitor traffic and concerns for safety and historical accuracy led the City to seek improved access while maintaining and restoring the structure’s historical architecture. For this latest in a series of modifications, the City commissioned the Virginia Beach architectural and engineering design firm of Hayes Seay, Mattern & Matter, Inc. (HSMM), a to design upgraded tower accessibility.

HSMM project architect A. Brian Super saw the project as a challenge “to keep as much of the original fabric of the historically significant lighthouse as intact as possible,” adding that his basic role was “to come up with a design that respected the history of the lighthouse and improved access for visitors.”

The new design replaced the ladder from the service deck to the watch deck with a ships ladder, and removed the original steel plate floor wedge from the watch deck that contained the narrow hatch. The wedge was turned over to the lighthouse visitor center for preservation.

The concrete modification that covered the hatch opening was removed to make room for a new spiral staircase. These changes resulted in a walkway around the tower that, according to Super, “is proportionate to when the lantern was originally there.”

The firm’s intent, according to Super, was to “mimic the details from the lighthouse’s original spiral staircase, using cast iron treads and other materials to replicate the original fabric.” The architects worked with the City of Virginia Beach, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) to adhere to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings.

An amendment to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 required a review of rehabilitation projects in to determine the effects on a structure’s historic integrity. APVA reviewed all of the architects’ drawings and attended all project meetings.

The Virginia Department of Transportation also reviewed the project because the project was partially funded by the federal Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. Super explained that since the lighthouse restoration was related to navigation, “there was a link with transportation that benefited the community as a whole.” The architect went on to stress the importance of studying a building’s history and past modifications. “When ‘restoring,’” he said, “you have to determine which timeframe to restore to.”

Past modifications become a historic point in a building’s life-cycle. “The Old Cape Henry Lighthouse is actually very well preserved,” Super concluded, “compared to most lighthouses.” The historic lighthouse has been able to maintain its fundamental appearance principally because the New Cape Henry Lighthouse was built adjacent to it, while similar lighthouses have had the fate of numerous modifications during the 20th Century to keep them fully functional. For Old Cape Henry Light, however, the new construction had the effect of “freezing” the old lighthouse in time.

Steven E. Loomis, AIA is a Senior Associate with Hayes, Seay, Mattern & Mattern, Inc., a Virginia-based architectural and engineering firm specializing in communication centers. Mr. Loomis’ experience includes new design and renovation projects. His knowledge encompasses project management, programming, planning, and design of communication centers across the country. Vanessa Suggs Wallace is a writer and Marketing Coordinator with Hayes, Seay, Mattern & Mattern, Inc.

This story appeared in the March 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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