A lighthouse marking the entrance to Great Machipongo Inlet once stood on a barrier island off Virginia’s Atlantic Coast. Hog Island Lighthouse is now just a distant memory, as is the town of Broadwater that once occupied the island. (See the March 2001 issue of Lighthouse Digest for an extensive history of the lighthouse station on Hog Island.) Erosion spurred on by a hurricane in the 1930s claimed much of the land, and what’s left is now part of a bird sanctuary.
But all is not lost from the old light station, as the jewel of Hog Island Lighthouse — a massive first order Fresnel lens — is now on display for all to see.
After the island’s second lighthouse (it replaced the original 1852 tower in 1896) was demolished using 350 pounds of TNT in 1948, its circa-1860s lens was saved and was eventually sent to the Mariners Museum in Newport News, VA, where it was on exhibit for 24 years. It was then loaned to the City of Portsmouth, VA and was packed away for the next three decades.
The gigantic lens produced by the Henry-LePaute company in France is about ten feet tall and 2,500 pounds and is made up of 368 prisms, and it’s valued at $750,000 to $1 million. The only lens that’s larger presently in use in the U.S. is the hyper-radial lens at Makapu’u Point in Hawaii.
Portsmouth’s waterfront underwent a revival during the lens’ decades in storage, and in recent years an effort began to find a suitable place to display the lens in the city. This effort was spearheaded by retired Coast Guard Rear Admiral William J. Ecker. It was decided that a new pavilion would be built to display the lens on the city’s Elizabeth River waterfront, directly across the river from the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. This is a rare case of a Fresnel lens on display outside of a museum setting.
The project was funded by the Portsmouth Museums Foundation in cooperation with the City of Portsmouth and the Fifth Coast Guard District. The Foundation does the fundraising for four museums in the city including the Portsmouth Lightship, a National Historic Landmark. The cost of the pavilion was in excess of $600,000.
Jim Dunlap, whose Lighthouse and Lens Restoration Corporation is based on Staten Island, New York, was called in to examine the lens and prepare it for display. In addition to Dunlap, the team that disassembled the lens in the city warehouse in preparation for its renovation also included Jim Woodward, whose company name is “The Lighthouse Consultant,” Kurt Fosberg, vice president of the Marquette Maritime Museum, and Mick Kipp of Baltimore, MD.
“All lenses are interesting,” says Dunlap, “and they all have their own character and problems.” In this case, he says, the lens wasn’t assembled correctly before being packed away. The upper section of the lens wasn’t connected to the rest of it, and one circular section was gone and had been replaced by a molded plastic piece that roughly matched the missing five prisms. Also, two panels came from another lens, and one prism had fallen off and broken into two pieces.
The lens presented unique challenges, but Dunlap, Woodward and Fosberg were up to it. The broken prism was mended using a metal band, exactly as it would have been done over a century ago. In addition to everything else, over 30 years of accumulated dust had to be removed from the lens. A full restoration including the refabrication of the lost glass pieces proved too costly for the moment, but it’s hoped that might happen in the future.
HBA Architecture, Engineering and Interior Design of Virginia Beach was hired by the City of Portsmouth to design the pavilion. William H. Hargrove, III, A.I.A., president of HBA, was the principal-in-charge for the project. Joseph A. Miller, A.I.A., project designer and architect, says the job was an exciting one. “The opportunity to design a building for the sole purpose of showcasing a significant and beautiful piece of history such as the Hog Island Lighthouse Fresnel lens is one that doesn’t present itself every day,” he says.
From the start it was recognized that the design of the pavilion shouldn’t distract from the lens itself, and that the lens should be viewable from a full 360º. The idea of a round, segmented glass structure eventually evolved into a lantern room theme. “While the pavilion structure does resemble the lantern room of a lighthouse,” says Miller, “its simplicity in detail does not overshadow the lens itself.”
J D & W, Inc. of Virginia Beach performed the construction of the pavilion. The building process took about a year from groundbreaking to dedication. The exhibit pavilion is 16 feet in diameter and about 25 feet tall, with glass panels that are designed to withstand hurricane-force winds and flying debris. The whole structure is raised about four feet off the ground and is accessed by stairs or a handicapped-accessible ramp.
The lens is mounted on a turntable that rotates slowly, approximating the way it once turned at the top of Hog Island Lighthouse. For now there’s no light showing from inside the lens, but light from spotlights on the ceiling reflects off the prisms creating a magnificent scene at night as the lens sparkles and shines.
This past November a public dedication of the new lens display was held with speakers that included the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area Chief of Staff Gene Brooks, Portsmouth Mayor James W. Holley III and retired Coast Guard Rear Admiral William J. Ecker. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Frank Drew was on hand for tours, and patriotic music was provided by the Brass and Percussion Ensemble of Churchland High School. The lens is still owned by the Coast Guard, and a new ten-year lease to the City of Portsmouth was signed at the ceremony.
An interesting footnote is the fact that this lens was narrowly saved from severe damage back in 1900. It was early in the evening on Washington’s Birthday when a huge number of birds, mostly geese and ducks, smashed into the lantern. The two keepers fired their shotguns at the birds to drive them away before the lens was damaged. Two days later the birds launched another assault. Out of ammunition, the keepers had to drive them away with sticks. This time much of the lantern glass was broken and the light was extinguished.
This tale might account for some of the damage now visible in the lens. But against all odds, this striking work of art and technology has survived and will shine for many years to come.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2004 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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