By Aida Havel
The following is a personal commentary by Aida Havel, Board Member of the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society, on the future restoration of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The lighthouse is undergoing a restoration, which includes the potential re-installment of the original 1850s Fresnel lens, or the installment of a handcrafted replica. (The original lens is currently on display at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras village, on loan from the National Park Service.) A public comment period is currently open until October 17 for the three options for the lighthouse restoration project going forward.
When it comes to the lighthouse lens, many comments I’ve heard have focused on either Alternative B, (place a replica lens in the lantern room), or Alternative C, (restore, as much as possible, the original lens and place it back in the lens room), which I understand, since that’s the way the National Park Service (NPS) request for comments was framed. However, my suggestion is that rather than either/or, another possible alternative could be both.
Here is my suggestion, in two parts: First, put a working replica Fresnel lens in the lighthouse. It will be less heavy, will not have the installation problems that restoring the original lens will have, will look as good if not better than the original, and will require substantially less maintenance.
Second, bring back the original lens and pedestal to the Cape Hatteras Light Station site, and place them in a specially built pavilion which could be specifically designed for detailed interpretation of this historic artifact. The NPS is already doing a site re-design, and since neither the Principal Keepers’ Quarters nor the Double Keepers’ Quarters would be adequate to house the full lens and base, a new pavilion, specifically designed to showcase this lens, could be designed.
Specifically, the Park Service could use the original lens to share with visitors the history and engineering of Fresnel lenses, the fascinating journey this particular lens has taken, and the importance of conservation and interpretation. By placing the lens in a pavilion on the ground, people who cannot climb the lighthouse or who choose not to can nevertheless still see this breathtaking example of civil engineering from the 19th century.
Regarding the lens’ journey, think about it: it’s gone from being placed in the 1850 lighthouse to being dismantled and hidden during the Civil War, then installed in the 1870 lighthouse, then abandoned in 1936, then vandalized in the late 1940s, then scattered to many locations including a Hatteras Island swamp, then displayed at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum without its pedestal, then reunited there with its pedestal, and then finally returned to the grounds of the lighthouse for which it was made. What great interpretation could be done with that story!
But where will the money come from? That is where Outer Banks Forever and perhaps other organizations could come in. As evident, the world is full of dedicated lighthouse enthusiasts. I fully believe that with the right approach, it would be easy to raise the necessary funds to build a pavilion and move the Fresnel lens back to the lighthouse grounds to be displayed.
As others have said, this lens is a national treasure. It has a long, well-traveled, and somewhat sad history. Is it not time for this iconic lens to rest, and not be pressed into service yet again? Like a beloved grandmother, is it not time for her to retire and share stories of her glory days?
One additional note: I’ve heard people say how nice it would be to showcase an actively working Fresnel lens in the lighthouse. I agree, and would suggest that people who want to see an undamaged, perfectly functioning, and historically accurate genuine Fresnel lens be directed to the Bodie Island Lighthouse. It is spectacular, both day and night!