Monday, March 20, 2023

Better climb Cape Henry Lighthouse while you can. It’ll close this fall…for much-needed restoration

VIRGINIA BEACH — This summer looks to be the last chance for locals and tourists alike to see the old Cape Henry Lighthouse as it is before a $1.5 million restoration project begins in the fall, bringing much-needed improvements to the 226-year-old structure.

The work will be funded by donations and by federal grants obtained by Preservation Virginia with the assistance of the City of Virginia Beach.

Site Coordinator Jessica Kinder said the lighthouse, which was constructed in 1792, will close to climbers this fall, but the shop will remain open and walking tours of historic Cape Henry will be given beginning in July.

“The foundation is about 20 feet deep and about half of it is exposed due to erosion of the sand,” Kinder said. “The dune is unstable. There are a lot of exposed rocks and bricks.”

Work will be done to the top of the dune the lighthouse sits on, raising it 2-to-3 feet. The dune around the base be built up with a soil mixture that can be easily compacted and prepared, then a concrete slab will be poured.

Kinder said they expect the work to take approximately six months.

Vegetation that has grown around the top of the dune will be removed, improving views of the surrounding area.

Kinder said the part of the foundation that is exposed, which is constructed of Aquia sandstone, will be surrounded by a vertical retaining wall covered with a granite veneer. The new wall won’t touch the old foundation and the space between will be filled with soil, sand, or a mix, and sea grass will be planted at least two feet from the original foundation. This will help protect the original foundation, while the new wall will also provide seating for visitors.

The old stairs leading up into the lighthouse entrance will also be replaced and new signage will be mixed in with some of the old. Kinder said a granite slab will be installed, with a map of the lighthouse’s location, other Chesapeake Bay sites of interest, and a compass rose.

A new ventilation system will also be added, she said.

The exposed Aquia sandstone shows signs of significant wear and erosion, and in a few places there’s vandalism, as people have carved names and initials into the soft stone surface.

Kinder said a dig in 2014 found the sandstone that was not exposed was not eroding like the stone above it. The rest of the lighthouse, the 93 feet that was originally above the sand, was built using Rappahannock freestone.

A new drainage system will be added to the stairs that lead up from the base of the dune to the lighthouse.

The Cape Henry Lighthouse was the first lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay and the first one constructed by the government of the new United States after the Revolutionary War.

The Cape Henry Lighthouse was operational from 1792 to 1881.

This story was updated June 6, 2018, changing the closing date to this fall and clarification was added concerning the granite retaining wall.

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