Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2012

Restoration at Piedras Blancas

By Carole Adams


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Piedras Blancas Lighthouse before restoration. ...

Located along scenic Highway One, near San Simeon, California, the Piedras Blancas Light Station has helped mariners navigate the dangerous, rocky coast since 1875. Administration of the light station was transferred to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the fall of 2001. Ten years tremendous progress has occurred.

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The Piedras Blancas Light Station showing the old ...

Thanks to the tenacity of many dedicated volunteers and staff of the BLM, the first phase of restoration of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse has been completed. A large crowd gathered on February 29, 2012 to cheer at the official ribbon cutting ceremony and re-opening of the lighthouse for tours. It was a wonderful way to celebrate the 137th birthday of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, first illuminated February 15, 1875.

Four months of labor intensive, manual effort went into the initial phase of lighthouse restoration. Tri-J Construction, of Chino, California, was contracted for the task. The first step was application of an eco--friendly stripper. The old, discolored, lead-based paint was manually removed by brush and scraper, from both the interior and exterior walls. Following removal of the lead-based paint, some of the original whitewash was visible on the bricks. Volunteers and staff said the lighthouse could almost be heard saying, “Ah, I can breathe again!” The new layer of paint is comprised of five specialized coats on the outer wall and three coats on the inner wall. This multi-step process is mineral based and will allow the bricks to dry out. A product of Keim Mineral Coatings, this process has also been used on other national treasures such as the Lincoln Memorial. The paint is reported to last up to thirty years and will protect the structure from the salt air and strong winds of San Simeon and Monterey Bays.

Prior to restoration, the tower looked in bad shape and, as some would say, “gave one the feeling that the tower was sad.” The upper three floors (fourth landing, watch room, and lantern) of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse were removed in 1949 as a result of earthquake damage. Years of neglect left the exterior of the truncated lighthouse discolored by algae and lichen growth, and soiled by rust and blowing dirt. Cracks in the walls resulted in water intrusion that caused damage to the interior. Now the cracks have been patched and the lighthouse is gleaming white. The black cast iron around the windows, doorway, and ledge were also freed of old paint and repainted, highlighting the beautiful architectural features. The lighthouse is gleaming white again, perhaps a reminder of what the structure looked like at the time of its greatest importance as an aid to navigation. The next phase of restoration of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse will involve reconstructing the missing upper thirty feet, including the lantern and hopefully a Fresnel lens.

Anyone observing the removal of lead-based paint, and subsequent re-painting of the lighthouse, could not help but marvel at the dedicated effort on the part of the construction crew. This was in keeping with the tradition of the U.S. Lighthouse Service of the past, and with the other progress that has been achieved at Piedras Blancas in the last ten years. It proves that teamwork and positive energy can result in miracles.

Restoration of the lighthouse is not the only good news from Piedras Blancas. Other accomplishments include native plant restoration, development and expansion of public tours, restoration of several other structures, and the site being recognized as an Outstanding Natural Area.

Native plant restoration. In 2002, volunteers and BLM staff began the daunting task of removing iceplant and other non-native plants. Eight years and hundreds of dried tons of iceplant later, the initial clearing was completed. The results are stupendous. Not only are native plant species thriving on this 19 acre windswept point of land, but the numbers of native animals using the area have increased. The success of the ecosystem recovery at Point Piedras Blancas is an inspiration to others.

Development and expansion of public tours. Public tours began modestly in 2004, and have dramatically increased. In 2011, the number of visitors attending public tours was around 5,000. Tours are offered Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings. During the summer, tours are offered six days a week. For more tour information, go to www.piedrasblancas.gov.

Structural restoration. In addition to the first phase of lighthouse restoration, the fog signal building is in the initial stages of restoration. The fuel oil house, storage building, and cottage storage shed have been restored. The blacksmith shop and laundry building were reconstructed and repurposed for modern needs.

Outstanding Natural Area designation. In 2008 Piedras Blancas Light Station was designated by Congress as an Outstanding Natural Area with the Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation System. In 2011, almost 190 acres of adjoining California State Park property were added to become the Piedras Blancas Outstanding Natural Area; in total it is 210 acres.

What lies ahead? The next project will be replication of a 50-foot water tower to house (and hide) modern communication equipment. It is hoped the former keepers dwelling and principal keeper’s cottage can be replicated and repurposed to serve for administrative and visitor serving purposes. The big goal is final restoration of the lighthouse.

Replication of the upper three floors of the lighthouse will be costly–estimated at several million dollars–and will occur as funds become available. The non-profit fundraising partner of the BLM is the Piedras Blancas Light Station Association (PBLSA). For information on PBLSA, go to www.piedrasblancas.org.

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2012 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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