Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2006

Nontypical Lighthouse Now a Beacon of Hope for New Orleans

By Timothy Harrison

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This vintage image shows the main banking room of ...

When the Hibernia Bank Building was completed in 1921, it was the tallest building in New Orleans as well as the entire south, and it held that record for an amazing 48 years.

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Vintage postcard of the interior of the safe ...

In 1984, the structure was declared a National Landmark, but few people know that it also once served as a lighthouse. As one can see from the antique postcards shown here, it was built solid. In fact, the

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Hibernia Bank Building in New Orleans looks much ...

23-story structure rises an amazing 335 feet and sits on over 3,000 wooden Cyprus pilings, each being 50 feet long.

The top of the Hibernia Bank Building was designed as a symbol of strength, just like lighthouses. However, the design did not take on a typical lighthouse appearance, instead, it was patterned on an ancient Greek temple in Athens dating from 334 B.C.

Almost immediately after construction, it became an official government lighthouse to guide ships up and down the Mississippi River with its two 1,000-watt lamps. However, with the advent of World War II, the lights went dark and the dome was used by the military to watch for enemy aircraft. Later, during the Cold War era, it was used by the Civil Defense as an observation post.

As aids to navigation changed, the lights were no longer needed to guide vessels. The lights were then used to celebrate various holidays or community events with the colors of the light changing to match the holiday or event being celebrated at the time.

This year, Hibernia Bank merged with Bank One and plans were underway to change the names on the banks' buildings when Hurricane Katrina hit, darkened the dome and delayed the name change.

This brings me to a point in the story that is not directly relevant to it, but needs to be said. For some reason or another in this country, as mergers and acquisitions have taken place, many of the old corporate names that built our nation have simply disappeared and have been replaced by so-called modern and more progressive names. The people who sit in the boardrooms of these big corporations have absolutely no regard for saving the names of the past, which is part of the core of the history of our nation. As more and more of the old is displaced and the history is lost, future generations will have difficulty understanding were we came from and how our nation became a world leader. And, it's these same people who sit in these corporate boardrooms that don't care about or support lighthouse restoration and preservation causes. Once we lose, forget or try to bury our history, we will be a nation that is lost.

Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of the Hibernia Bank, they completed an effort to relight the tower with generators this past September, once again lighting up the dome. In this small way, the bank has signaled that the City of New Orleans is slowly coming back to life and perhaps, some will view it as a Beacon of Hope for the future. But, whatever the case, the name Hibernia will soon disappear into the dusty pages of time and most will never know it was once a lighthouse.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2006 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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