Cape Henry Lighthouse is Finally Getting Fixed
A Certain Kind of Light
By all accounts, John McComb made stuff to last. Born in 1753, the master bricklayer built New York’s City Hall and was also responsible for Gracie Mansion, the New York City Mayoral residence. During his career, he also constructed three lighthouses, all still standing.
The most famous of these beacons, the old Cape Henry Lighthouse, stands on the edge of First Landing State Park and the Fort Story military base in Virginia Beach, not far from where the original Jamestown settlers made a historic pit stop in 1607.
The third oldest survivor, this isn’t just any lighthouse. Erected in 1792, the intricately chiseled, 90-foot stone tower was commissioned by George Washington and its construction overseen by Alexander Hamilton. The final cost of the building (and its two-story lightman’s cottage) was $17,700 in 18th-century dollars. It was originally budgeted at $15,200, but the shifty sand conditions meant laying the foundation 20 feet instead of 12, an additional cost of $2,500 and more than a few man-hours. McComb, for his part, was uncomplaining and even-keeled throughout a tense construction. “He is persevering and merits much for his industry,” one of Hamilton’s agents reported.
It was of pressing national security interest to secure this particular site, to put a light here. Even today, you must pass through a military checkpoint to enter the lighthouse grounds. The Cape Henry Light stands at the juncture of the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, a nautical hub which leads into the harbors of Coastal Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C. This was once the entrance to the new world, for both friend and foe. It was also where many a sailor had perished, his ship run aground, as the gap between Cape Henry and Cape Hatteras earned its macabre nickname, “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
Cape Henry wasn’t just the first lighthouse constructed by our new United States; it was the very first federal project of any kind. Looking today at the unpainted, hand-made structure, described by engineer Benjamin Latrobe a few years after construction as “an octangular truncated pyramid of eight sides, six or seven hundred yards from the beach,” you see the first light of democracy.
“It solidified us a nation rather than a conglomeration of states. It was the first federal work by our new nation,” says Jennifer Hurst-Wender, the director of museum operations and education at Preservation Virginia, the statewide organization that owns and maintains the tower. “The idea of a nation with interstate travel and commerce depended on it. That’s really the importance of Cape Henry Lighthouse.”
This site has seen much history. “It would have been the ideal place to witness the battle of the Virginia Capes,” Hurst-Wender says with a smile. The decisive 1781 Revolutionary War sea battle, also known as the Battle of the Chesapeake, saw the French navy successfully blockade English ships from trying to resupply their troops in Yorktown. “This is the reason Cornwallis had to surrender,” she says. “And so this battle is the reason we won the war and independence.”
It Takes a Village
This windswept peak continues to make history, albeit of a different kind. The Cape Henry Lighthouse’s long-needed restoration and repair has been one of the longest-gestating public works projects in Virginia Beach history. And now, after 25 years, it looks like—fingers crossed—the completion of much-needed fortifications to this iconic beam-thrower are finally about to happen. But what a long, strange trip through red tape it’s been.
“The project saw federal money going to a state program to a city for a privately-owned property,” Preservation Virginia’s Director of Preservation Services Louis Malon says. “Accessing the money became quite a challenge.”
Last year, Virginia Beach was awarded $160,000 from the Virginia Department of Transportation with the funding provided by the Federal Moving Ahead for Progress (MAP-21). It’s the third such grant awarded to the project through an initiative once called the Transportation Enhancement program.
The lighthouse, declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966, also sits in a national park housed on an active military base. Malon shakes his head at all of the different agencies, committees and governmental bodies this singular historic repair job has gone through. “I just hoped I would see this happen before I retired.”
“Me too,” says Mark Reed, who is leaving his position as Virginia Beach’s historic resources coordinator after 26 years. Happily, he says, among his last duties is to get the lighthouse renovations underway. Finally. “I’m trying to get it to the construction phase and to advertise bids. We’re pretty close.” Everyone involved hopes that repairs will begin at the end of this year, after the peak summer months.
What this light meant to our country’s earliest beginnings—in matters related to defense, travel and commerce—is symbolized by its prominent appearance on the Virginia Beach city logo. “Both functionally and symbolically, it is very important,” Reed says. “The colony of Virginia had identified the placement of a lighthouse at Cape Henry as an essential aid to navigation early in the 18th century but never could pull it off, never could get the funds together.”
Turn to Stone
The need to repair old Cape Henry became evident in 1990, when a report by Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources found that the tower had serious “issues.” (A similar conclusion had been reached more than 100 years earlier by another inspector. But we’ll get to that in a minute.)
The big problem was the condition of the lighthouse base. Several feet of sand had shifted since John McComb’s time, exposing the Aquia sandstone that makes up the base. “It was never meant to be exposed,” Malon says. “This stone is much softer than the red-hued Rappahannock rock that makes up the rest of the lighthouse. With the blowing of sand and wind, over time, the [Aquia] stone has begun to show erosion.”
Many of the patch jobs and improvements made over the years to Cape Henry’s base have proven damaging in the long run. “Some repairs were made [in the past] using something called a ‘Portland cement’ that has proven to be too harsh for bricks and stone like that,” he says. “It’s actually exacerbated the erosion.”
Way back in 1864, a brick cylinder was installed inside of the stone to encase a new cast-iron spiral staircase. It was a great idea, as the original wooden staircase was a real fire hazard (something Benjamin LaTrobe had noted decades earlier). “But the new brick has caused the weight to shift,” Malon says. “The Coast Guard abandoned the lighthouse in the mid-19th century because they didn’t think it was stable. That’s why a new one was built.”
In June 1878, the U.S. Congress raised $75,000 to replace McComb’s lighthouse with a cast iron model. That striped wonder was finished in 1881 and stands 350 feet from the old Cape Henry, larger in size but somehow dwarfed by its predecessor because of the slumping of the dunes. Still in use today as a beacon, the new boy, itself declared a National Historic Landmark, became fully automated in 1984 and is maintained today by the Coast Guard.
Amazingly, despite the pronouncement 140 years ago that the old Cape Henry was unstable, it still stands tall. There is no serious structural damage (something the repairs hope to ward off); it’s safe enough to host 50,000–80,000 visitors a year. Malon, for one, still marvels at the sturdy and exquisite design of John McComb’s creation. “I’m amazed that they could build this in the 18th century. You look at those octagonal corners, and the angles are perfect, the working on that stone is just ideal. And it was all done by hand.”
Once the old Cape Henry was retired, it fell into limbo. Thankfully, in 1930, the U.S. Congress deeded the Lighthouse and 1.77 acres of surrounding land to Preservation Virginia.
Originally called the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, Preservation Virginia was founded in 1889, at a time when the idea of preserving the past was still a little out of the mainstream. It formed out of local branches in small towns across the commonwealth and is recognized today as the nation’s first-ever statewide preservation organization. “Back in those days, your only option for preservation was to basically buy the building to keep it from being demolished or significantly altered,” Malon says. “Now with easements and other tools that we have available to us, we don’t actually need to own them to still affect preservation.”
Today, in addition to Cape Henry, the association maintains and protects several important properties, including Historic Jamestowne and Bacon’s Castle in Surry County, which will celebrate its 350th anniversary this year. Today’s mission is to take more of an advocacy role; Preservation Virginia publishes an influential “Most Endangered List” to bring awareness to vulnerable historic sites. In 1989, it started a Revolving Fund program with the Virginia General Assembly to help save Virginia’s oldest and most significant structures.
“We own about 15 properties now,” Malon says. “When I first started, many years ago, we had more than 40. But we’ve systematically been reducing that portfolio so that we could focus more on preservation as an overall activity rather than those specific properties. When we had 40 properties that was basically all we could do; every dollar we raised went into restoring and maintaining them.”
Over the years, there has been some upkeep on the grand old beacon. In 1953, during the destruction of Hurricane Barbara, the top of Cape Henry Light blew off; more recently, a 2011 earthquake shut the lighthouse down during summer tourist season.
Today, this old tower is one of Preservation Virginia’s most visited sites. “It’s only used now as a navigation aid, but it’s still active,” Jennifer Hurst-Wender says. “Even with all of the technology, mariners can still look up and see it and know where they are.”
“The City of Virginia Beach is proud to have it here,” Mark Reed says of John McComb’s lighthouse. “It’s always been a place that people want to visit. This lighthouse places Virginia Beach as a focal point of the earliest days of Virginia and of the history of this country.”
Read this article in full in the February/March 2015 issue of Coastal Virginia Magazine.
The author acknowledges the research of the Friends of the Lighthouse organization.