What will happen to the circa-1874 Piedras Blancas Lighthouse lens on display in Cambria, California as its lease runs out and the structure protecting it deteriorates?
By Kathe Tanner, courtesy The Cambrian
Those are key questions that will require several decisions from at least four agencies, a friends group and community members, according to representatives of the Bureau of Land Management, the Piedras Blancas Light Station Association (PBLSA), the U.S. Coast Guard and other concerned individuals.
County officials would also be involved.
The Lions Club of Cambria – which has for decades had possession of and/or a lease for the lens – is bowing out, according to the association’s October-December newsletter, as the lease expired in March.
A report in their newsletter indicates that “conversations have begun in earnest about the future” of the lens that’s currently on display inside that multi-sided structure on county property near the Veterans Memorial Building and the Pinedorado grounds.
The Cambrian has confirmed those efforts with representatives of the U.S. Coast Guard, which owns the lens, the association, and the BLM, which manages the light station.
But representatives of all those say the public could have a major say in the future of the lens. How and when that will happen is part of those discussions.
People with suggestions or opinions about or interest in the future of the lens are encouraged to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT OFFICIALS SAY ABOUT THE LENS
“We share the concerns of everybody,” Gabe Garcia, BLM’s field manager in the Bakersfield office, said in a phone interview on Dec. 30. “We want to see the lens preserved and displayed somewhere so residents and tourists can see it and learn how things were” when the lens and the lighthouse went into operation.
The light station, located off Highway 1 near the elephant seal rookery, was completed in 1875, and the lens was lit for the first time in February that year.
“For us, it’s a nice draw for people to stop and see the lens in Cambria,” he said. Many of the viewers then pick up a brochure to learn more about the light station and get details about regular tours there.
Two-hour public tours of the light station are given regularly. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for children. For details, go to www.piedrasblancas.org or call 805-927-7361.
The condition of the lens and its enclosure are not new topics.
In the 1990s, the Coast Guard rehabbed the lens and returned it to the Lions Club’s new enclosure.
Since then, the lens and structure have been cleaned, examined and studied, most recently in 2019, when a group of volunteers organized by Zale Schuster, operating under the authority of PBLSA and guided by lens mechanic/consultant Jim Woodward, spent days doing the painstaking work. Woodward is one of the only Coast-Guard approved lampists in the country, and he wrote a 10-page assessment about what should be done then to the lens and the building that protects it.
Meanwhile, there are lots of decisions – and searching for the money to support them – ahead.
“We’ve been trying to work out a solution for that lens for more than 10 years,” Arlyn Danielson, curator for the U.S. Coast Guard, said by phone on Dec. 27. While she hasn’t seen the lens and its enclosure in person, “I’ve heard from very good sources that the structure has seen better days, for sure.”
She said the Coast Guard is currently “looking into the possibility of transferring” ownership of the lens, “but we don’t know if it will work out with BLM. We haven’t gotten any kind of firm commitment from them. If that doesn’t work out, the lens would stay within the Coast Guard inventory of historic assets.”
No matter what the ultimate solution is, Danielson said, “clearly it will have to be removed out of that structure it’s in. Where and how that would happen is yet to be determined.”
In the discussions with BLM and PBLSA, she said, “they were a bit shocked” about “the reality of the expense, time and money that goes into the care and feeding of a lens . . . about what we had to put into it to make sure it’s properly preserved and located and housed and the whole nine yards. Those lenses are fragile and old, and a lot can go wrong (if the work isn’t done properly).”
Danielson also noted “the rare nature of this lens,” acknowledging that “there’s increasing interest in the lens. It’s a great educational piece. It tells a story of the ‘coastal aids to navigation’ system along the California coast, which is still important.”
Besides all that, Danielson emphasized about the Fresnel lenses, “they are so beautiful. They’re works of industrial art.”
BLM’s Garcia said, “We’re not sure yet if we want to own” the Piedras lens, but the U.S. land agency is trying to “figure out if that’s the best option . . . We told the Coast Guard we definitely want to be part of the process, part of the solution. We’re trying to dial in on what that solution is. “Do we leave it where it’s at, finding funding to fix the structure, or build a new one? The other option is a move to the lighthouse, build a structure there.”
The bottom line is the bottom line: “All this is years in the making,” Garcia said, time for hearing from the public, planning and especially finding the money to get to that ultimate goal of keeping the lens safe while also keeping it available for area residents and visitors to see and enjoy.
There are various hip-pocket estimates of the value of the lens floating around, but none have been verified and some of the higher ones ranging from $1 million up may not take into consideration its current condition and fragile situation.
LIONS CLUB PLAYED BIG ROLE IN PROTECTING THE PIEDRAS BLANCAS LENS
The Cambria Lions Club has long been involved with the lens, from taking it from the light station grounds in 1949, to creating an offshoot Friends of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse Lens group under the direction of Bob Lane and others, to the design and building of the current enclosure completed in the mid-1990s. The lens was lit there first in 1995, 120 years after its first lighting in Piedras Blancas.
“The Lions Club deserves a lot of accolades for getting the lens and keeping it for all those years,” light station manager Ryan Cooper said by phone December 23.
“Since the Lions Club is not interested in renewing the lease,” the association’s newsletter report continued, “the BLM, with the support and participation of the PBLSA, has been discussing the future of the lens with the Coast Guard.”
Those talks have been going more slowly than some people would like, especially those who are so concerned about the safety of the lens, according to Harry Thorpe, PBLSA treasurer.
Various factors could have slowed down the process, he said, including the pandemic and a recent reorganization of some Coast Guard departments.
Thorpe said there is real urgency involved in the decision. “An engineering study we had done told us the building ‘was in fairly immediate danger of collapsing,’” so the sooner a decision can be made and the lens secured, the better.
“The metal-and-glass enclosure is not in good condition. It’s really rusted, not really waterproof, doesn’t maintain the temperature,” Thorpe said. “We’re very concerned.”
OPTIONS FOR THE LENS
In the meantime, he and others concerned about the looming danger say area residents and lighthouse enthusiasts can help determine where they would like the lens to be put permanently. While fundraising for those efforts isn’t underway yet, those people should also consider if they’d be willing to eventually donate money and time to the cause.
According to Thorpe, Cooper and others, there are various options for the lens, involving varying degrees of costliness. None of them will be fast, easy or inexpensive, and nobody seems to know yet if grant funds are available to help pay for the work.
Any of the options would likely involve dismantling the lens, making any necessary repairs and storing it until a proper location is available for it.
However, former light station manager John Bogacki said that, with proper protective measures, a highly experienced contractor might be able to safely repair the structure around the lens. “Protecting the lens while it’s under construction is another issue, but I’m sure the experts have dealt with that before.”
Bogacki, who ran BLM operations for years before coming out of retirement for the Piedras project he still loves so much, said by phone December 28, “just breaking down the lens, moving it, would cost about $10,000 to $20,000 or more. It would have to be done by experts.”
And the enclosure? “I think the thing could be salvaged. Take it apart and put it back together. The parts that need fixing are structural aluminum and steel . . . When it was built, they laid those aluminum sweepers directly on the concrete, which is a terrible thing to do,” because chemical interaction hastens the rusting process.
Some of the other options for the lens include:
• Designing and building a new structure in the same location, perhaps one that replicates the tower that was removed from the lighthouse in 1949.
• Finding a location at the light station. Cooper said he doesn’t think the Fog Signal Building could be sealed and adapted well enough to meet the Coast Guard’s museum-quality requirements for moisture and environmental control.
• Creating a new, museum-grade structure at the light station that would fulfill those requirements. Some have suggested recreating a Victorian house that was on the property, and making part of it into a museum for the lens. That’s probably the costliest option.
• Putting it back on top of the tower. That isn’t workable, because the issues of weight and other problems are still there: the very reasons why the Coast Guard removed the lens and the lantern room more than 70 years ago.
• Parceling the lens off to another museum somewhere else. That’s not what most interested parties want to see happen to it. Likewise, as Cooper mentioned, having the disassembled lens “wind up in the bowels of a government warehouse somewhere” would not be a palatable concept for many.
As BLM’s Garcia concluded simply, seemingly speaking for all concerned, “We’re here to help” preserve and protect the historic lens that so many want to see, appreciate and enjoy for decades to come.
Editor’s Note: For past stories about Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, you can search the archives of Lighthouse Digest at www.LighthouseDigest.com. For other stories by Kathe Turner about Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, you can go to www.sanluisobispo.com
This story appeared in the
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