Cape Hatteras Lighthouse: A Beacon of Preservation

Our Sight Lines series highlights how different perspectives and practices come together to deliver value for specific clients and communities, through the lens of Quinn Evans projects and locations.

North Carolina’s Outer Banks is more than just a popular vacation destination. Sure, there are beautiful beaches, perfect surf spots, and ample opportunities for fishing and golf, but there is also history that extends back centuries.

Long considered the Graveyard of the Atlantic, the Outer Banks is home to shifting sandbars and powerful currents that resulted in numerous shipwrecks dating back to the 16th century. For sailors, the waters just off of Cape Hatteras are especially treacherous, and Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s ship almost ran aground there in 1794. Hamilton’s near brush with disaster resulted in Congress granting approval for the construction of a lighthouse on Cape Hatteras, which was completed in 1803.

This simple, functional lighthouse was in use until the Civil War when its lens and lantern were damaged. Following the war, Congress once again granted the funding to construct a new lighthouse on Cape Hatteras, which extends more than 200 feet above sea level and provides visibility for 20 nautical miles on a clear day. Often called “America’s Lighthouse,” the 1870 Cape Hatteras light is an iconic structure which stands watch over this remote corner of the Outer Banks. The lighthouse and surrounding complex were moved in 1998 to save the structures from the encroaching seashore.

With its unique look, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is one of the most recognizable lighthouses in the world. When a restoration project for the lighthouse began in 2021, Quinn Evans was honored to be included. We engaged in the design for restoration of the lighthouse, including repair of brick and stone masonry, steel and cast iron, window repairs, and replacement of lost elements and features, including the potential replication of its first-order Fresnel lens which lit the way for mariners until it was retired and replaced with the current rotary beacon in 2006.

As part of our approach to restoration, we strive to take the future into account and make sure that our work is inclusive of both community and environmental needs. For the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the environmental factors were incredibly important to consider. 

“There’s a lot of humidity and salt in the air, being right on the ocean,” explains Quinn Evans architect Chris Lattimer, RA, Fitwel Amb.. “It’s about being able to understand how the climate affects the project.”

Inside the lighthouse, moisture was trapped beneath layers and layers of old paint. As part of the restoration process, a new, more breathable coating of paint will be used, which allows water to escape naturally. 

Chris notes how the lighthouse is a beautiful building, but one that still needs to be functional.

“It’s more about how the materials function and how the building is able to stand up,” he says. “We’re not trying to reach the comfort levels achieved by a museum; we’re really just looking at how the building can stand up long term with the environmental effects on it.”

Preservation is about more than repairing and modernizing. It’s also about honoring history and the architectural innovations of the past. Chris is fascinated by historic buildings and how they were functionally designed to work with the climate without the use of the modern systems we rely on today. That often means utilizing materials from the region.

“I’ve always enjoyed architecture that was simply built using the materials that were locally available,” Chris explains. “This results in a unique architectural landscape that varies by region when the landscape, climate, and natural materials of a place intersect with the culture, skills, and history of the local people.”

As the project progresses, Quinn Evans is also looking forward to input from the community. Once the structure is stripped down to its interior, an environmental review process will begin and the public will be invited to comment on how the project will progress. Features up for discussion include: repairing or replacing the light and a landscaping project for the lighthouse grounds.

At Quinn Evans, we are committed to preserving and honoring the past while positioning buildings and sites for the realities of the future. We are honored to participate as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse begins its next chapter.

What comes next?

In our Sight Lines series, we will continue to tell the story of One Firm through the lens of specific sites and locations. We will highlight how Quinn Evans works with clients to create more than just a physical building and highlight how different perspectives and practices come together to deliver value for specific clients and communities.

Thank you for joining us as we explore the Sight Lines that connect us all.

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