Effort to restore Hatteras Lighthouse begins

By on March 27, 2021

Removing paint from the inside walls is the first step of the lighthouse project. (National Park Service)

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse looks great for its age. And the iconic attraction plays host to about 500,000 annual visitors while some 1,500 people climb the lighthouse daily between April and October. But at 150 years old, there’s some work that needs to be done. As a first step, a contractor is starting the task of removing the paint from the inside walls.

The interior work marks the beginning of a major restoration of the lighthouse that is expected to take at least a year. According to the National Park Service (NPS), the full project will include repairs on everything from deteriorated masonry to marble flooring to the lantern. Missing interior doors will also be restored and the interior and exterior of the structure will get a new coat of paint.

Tests have now begun on the best way to remove paint from the exterior. Jerome Kirkland, NPS Preservation Specialist and Construction Management Representative for the current phase of the project, points to the need to preserve the historic integrity of the lighthouse. “Within the Park Service, that’s our first priority,” he said.

The initial phase will take at least three months according to the NPS, and if completed in time, will allow for a shortened climbing season. But in a structure as old as the lighthouse, there is no way to know what will be found as the paint comes off.

“In most of our projects, we try to include a buffer funding of at least twenty percent. We know if we peel the paint off these brick walls, the paint might have been hiding something. Something that has to be repaired now, so that it will still be here in three to five years,” Kirkland explained.

It is not just one coat of paint, he notes, adding that. “I’ve already counted five coats of paint in some areas.”

The paint is removed using a citric acid compound that is completely biodegradable. “We just brush it on,” Kirkland said. “We leave it on for about twelve hours, it penetrates the paint. We come back with a plastic scraper so that we don’t damage the brick, and that paint will peel off. Then we apply a second coat, and…we do that until we remove enough paint to expose the brick.”

The hope is to restore the lighthouse to its original look, and science plays a significant role in that. Kirkland points out that the color of the original paint of the interior may be determined by a microscopic examination of the layers of paint done in a lab.

It is also possible, he says, that the original walls were whitewashed. “Back then they’d oftentimes use a whitewash, which is more of a lime base…that would have actually absorbed into the surface of the brick. It wouldn’t have been until probably a decade or two later that they started to paint masonry surfaces,” he said.

The masonry is where some of the most significant questions about state of the lighthouse may have to be addressed.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was built using a double-walled construction. There is a hollow space between the inner wall and the outer wall until the two meet — in this case, at approximately 130 feet. Although the air space between the two walls would be sealed, the NPS is testing to see if heat and humidity is affecting the masonry.

The double-walled construction was fairly new way to build a tower when the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was built, and it may have been the first in the nation erected using that technique. It was more expensive than other methods of construction, but the double walls gave the lighthouse considerably more strength than other forms of construction.

‘They were artisans. They understood their art’

Although there was a lighthouse at Cape Hatteras that predated the current one, it was considered hopelessly inadequate.

In 1852, Navy Lt. David Porter wrote of that lighthouse, “In nine trips I made I never saw Hatteras light at all, though frequently passing in sight of the breakers, and when I did see it, I could not tell it from a steamer’s light, excepting that the steamer’s lights are much brighter.”

The Lighthouse Board, aware of those shortcomings, was determined to not make the same mistake with the new lighthouse.

“In a tower so expensive and exposed as the new one proposed for Cape Hatteras will be, it is desirable to take every measure to secure the very best materials. Quality is a much greater object than price,” the 2016 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Historic Structure Report reported the Lighthouse Board writing.

That same concept of building the best structure possible was also on Lighthouse Board Acting Engineer WJ Newman’s mind when he suggested the double-walled design in 1868.

Kirkland, however, gives credit to more than the materials and design.

“Back then they didn’t use any disposable type materials. They didn’t use drywall. They didn’t use lesser materials. The people that built these structures, you couldn’t call them the same as we call construction technicians today. They were artisans. They understood their art,” he said.

The evidence of that is in how well the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has stood the test of time. It survived the Charleston Earthquake of 1886, estimated to have been between 6.6-7.3 on the Richter scale, whose effects rippled up the coast.

“The tower would sway backward and forward like a tree shaken by the wind. The shock was so strong that we could not keep our backs against the parapet wall. It would throw us right from it,” the lighthouse keeper reported.

The lighthouse sustained no visible damage.

It has also survived innumerable hurricanes and its famous relocation of 2,900 feet in 1999.

There has even been some recent evidence of how well the lighthouse was built. Graffiti was scratched onto the bronze door of the lighthouse earlier this month. A clear acrylic will be applied to repair it, but according to Kirkland, the scratches in the bronze will not permanently harm the door.

“That old bronze door, it will take decades for that type of graffiti to cause any true damage,” he said.  “A modern door would be bronze plated. And that single graffiti would permanently harm the door.”


Barnhill Building Group has been selected as the Construction Manager @ Risk by the College of the Albemarle and is seeking to pre-qualify construction trade contractors to submit bids for the furnishing labor, materials, equipment, and tools for the new College of The Albemarle – Allied Health Sciences Simulation Lab (COA Health Sciences) located in Elizabeth City, NC. Please note: Only subcontractors who have been prequalified by Barnhill will be able to submit a Bid.

The project consists of the new construction of a 38,000-sf, 2-story expansion to the existing Owens Health Sciences Center and will house classrooms, labs, and a simulation lab. The site is just over just over 4.5 acres and is located on an active campus. This new construction will be a steel structure with a brick and metal panel veneer, curtainwall, and storefront glazing with a PVC roof membrane.

Principal trade and specialty contractors are solicited for the following Bid Packages:

BP0100: General Trades

BP0105: Final Cleaning

BP0390: Turnkey Concrete

BP0400: Turnkey Masonry

BP0500: Structural Steel & Misc. Steel

BP0740: Roofing

BP0750: Metal Panels

BP0790: Caulking / Caulking

BP0800: Turnkey Doors/Frames/Hardware

BP0840: Glass & Glazing

BP0925: Drywall

BP0960: Resilient Flooring

BP0980: Acoustical Ceilings

BP0990: Painting & Wallcovering

BP1005: Toilet Specialties / Accessories / Division 10

BP1010: Signage

BP1098: Demountable Partitions

BP1230: Finish Carpentry and Casework

BP1250: Window Treatment

BP1400: Elevators

BP2100: Fire Protection

BP2200: Plumbing

BP2300: HVAC

BP2600: Turnkey Electrical

BP3100: Turnkey Sitework

BP3290: Landscaping

Packages may be added and/or deleted at the discretion of the Construction Manager. Historically underutilized business firms are encouraged to complete participation submittals.

HUB/MWBE OUTREACH MEETING: Barnhill Building Group will be conducting a HUB/MWBE Informational Session. You are encouraged to attend the following session to learn more about project participation opportunities available to you. These seminars will help to: Learn about project and scope; Inform and train Minority/HUB contractors in preparation for bidding this project; Assist in registration on the State of North Carolina Vendor link; Stimulate opportunities for Networking with other firms. Location and time TBD. Please visit our planroom at https://app.buildingconnected.com/public/54da832ce3edb5050017438b for more information.

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  • Bud

    Its been obsolete for how many years, decades now?
    Should have kept the historical tradition alive by letting the ocean have it.

    Saturday, Mar 27 @ 2:30 pm
  • C A

    As a longtime resident, I’m truly grateful for all of the efforts in restoring, and preserving this incredible coastal landmark.

    I remember the marvel of moving the lighthouse, and thinking then how valuable it is to the entire state of North Carolina.

    It is worth every effort given, and I’m very glad it’s so well cared for. Thanks, and keep up the good work.

    Sunday, Mar 28 @ 10:31 am

    Totally agree with C A. Extremely fortunate that Bud is not a major say in the saving of, I mean, the not saving of, our historical treasures.

    Sunday, Mar 28 @ 9:01 pm
  • Scott urban

    Just wondering who is restoring the masonry work

    Tuesday, Mar 30 @ 7:29 pm
  • John Havel

    Reply to Scott Urban — The National Park Service and the architectural firm of Quinn-Evans are still in the “design phase” of the entire restoration project. They have been studying ALL of the metalwork, windows, lantern, granite, brickwork, stairs, etc., etc. very carefully for two years now and are carefully balancing preservation, environmental, interpretive, cost, maintenance, etc., etc. to determine best practices for each and every component of the original structure. They are not yet complete, but when the process is complete (late 2021?) competitive bidding will take place and determine contractors for each and every element of the project. Watch this website for up-to-date news—https://www.nps.gov/caha/learn/news/cape-hatteras-lighthouse-restoration-project.htm.

    Saturday, Apr 3 @ 2:01 pm