Heceta Head to get 'a top-to-bottom restoration'

Heceta Head to get 'a top-to-bottom restoration'
Heceta Head Lighthouse

FLORENCE, Ore. (AP) — The Heceta Head Lighthouse may capture the eye of more photographers than any other lighthouse on the Oregon coast. There's just something about its solitary setting in the midst of so much rugged terrain that seems to beckon all who pass by.

But as photographed as it may be, the 118-year-old tower isn't winning any beauty contests. Its corbels are cracked, the metal rusted, its layers and layers of paint chipped. And, as one historic preservationist put it, the poor thing can't breathe.

That's why the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department is about to embark on a $1.3 million do-over.

That's the upside in this tale. >>> Photo Gallery

The not so good news: The light is about to go out on this iconic tower, and it will stay out for some time.

Work will begin on Aug. 1, closing the entire area for about one to two months. The trails, parking lot and oil house will reopen at about the end of September or possibly sooner. The 56-foot lighthouse itself could be closed for up to two years.

"This project is a top-to-bottom restoration, inside and out," said Sue Licht, the Parks and Recreation Department's preservation architect. "It will involve restoring all the metalwork, all the masonry, all the interior finishes, including the windows and doors. The windows are going to go back in, and then the workroom will be restored on the interior as well."

The first task workers will undertake is to cover up the Fresnel lens. Made in Great Britain by the Chance Brothers, the lens is the only one of its kind on the Oregon coast and one of only two in the country. Most of the other Fresnel lenses on the coast come from France.

"The lens is the workhorse," said Licht. "Everything has to do with protecting the lens. It will be completely enclosed and covered in foam and plywood so nothing can happen to it during construction."

Money for the project is coming from the federal Transportation Department. It will kick in about $1.1 million, with the state's share at about $217,000.

While the elements can be blamed for much of Heceta's poor shape, people and their good intentions are equally at fault. It seems when preservationists previously went in to remedy problems, they did more harm than good.

"I've been in preservation 25 years, and one of the things I learned is an awful lot of what I do is to undo a lot of the latest and greatest things people were trying on historical buildings in the '60s and '70s," said Licht.

"One of the things you will see is up at the top there is a ring of stone. They decided those stones were either cracked or something was wrong up there. Too much water was getting in, so they took a material called Gunite, a type of spray-on cement, and sprayed around the stone so they disappeared. One of the things they didn't anticipate was there was water constantly leaking in, and it trapped the water and accelerated deterioration of all the metal that was up there."

Likewise, the brick tower.

When the lighthouse was built in 1893, the brick tower was whitewashed. But only one year later, so much water had leaked in, builders returned to cover the brick in stucco.

"That was fine," Licht said. "But as years went by, more and more waterproof layers of paint were put on. There was no water penetration, but also no ability to allow the brick to breathe. The brick gets wet and stays wet, but it needs to breathe, to dry out."

Workers will take off the stucco by hand, then replace it with a natural stucco and waterproof coating that will protect the brick but also allow moisture to escape. They'll also replace the glass around the lens with safety glass, install a new vent ball (the round metal fixture on the top) and new railings.

"It will be slow going, a lot of handwork and a lot of careful work," said Licht. "It's kind of like working on an artifact. You want to do the right thing for the building. You want to get another 100 years down the road, but you want to be sure what you are doing is not going to accelerate the deterioration."

The public will be able to follow the restoration work through exhibits in the oil house next to the lighthouse, and when work is complete, the parks department will host an unveiling of the gussied-up tower.

As Florida visitor Pat Mahar put it, "It will be interesting to see what it will look like with the windows, lintels and new paint, so it's not so ugly outside."


Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.