Piedras Blancas lighthouse gets a facelift

Fresh paint inside and out plus a continuing flurry of other restoration efforts add new allure to the historic lighthouse north of Cambria

ktanner@thetribunenews.comMarch 1, 2012 

It has taken 10 years, $750,000 and more than 100,000 volunteer hours, but the Piedras Blancas Light Station now shines brighter thanks to a substantial facelift.

Nearly 70 people gathered Wednesday for an official celebration at the historical site on a wind-blown promontory 15 miles north of Cambria.

Volunteers and Bureau of Land Management staffers, who played a significant role in the restoration, took part in the low-key ribbon-cutting ceremony. Among the improvements they heralded:

• A repainted tower, now sparkling white with sharply contrasting black trim. It replaced a dull beige, lead-based surface laced with rusty streaks.

• A restored fuel oil house.

• A replica of the station’s shingled watch room.

• Other repaired historic structures, such as employee housing and a strip of small offices, that now house the Piedras Blancas Light Station Association gift shop.

“This is so exciting!” said volunteer Michelle Apitz as she looked at the lighthouse. “It looks so beautiful. This is one of our national treasures, too.”

Altogether, Apitz and other volunteers have put in what’s estimated as more than 100,000 hours — or about $2 million worth of free labor at $20 an hour. The volunteer corps received a national Bureau of Land Management award in 2010 for having regularly donated more than 15,000 hours of work annually at the station.

The federal agency has put up about $750,000, including some grants, to pay for work on the site. Nearly $360,000 of that paid for the special paint job on the 74-foot-tall lighthouse.

Contractor Tri J Construction recently completed the four-month chore of removing generations of dingy, toxic, lead-based paint from the lighthouse tower, inside and out, and then painstakingly applying five specialized coats to protect the 137-year-old structure from salt air and strong wind.

One of the coating types is “a mineral-base process that’s about 150 years old,” said Pete Stella, one of the contractors. The Keim Mineral Coatings paint process has been used on such national treasures as the Lincoln Memorial, he said.

The newly painted tower is the pinnacle, for now, of all the work on the 19-acre site, designated nationally as an Outstanding Natural Area. The grounds are lushly landscaped with native plants that flourished on their own after volunteers laboriously, sometimes painfully, removed tons of tenacious iceplant by hand.

Some nonhistorical buildings have been removed. And some work is ongoing. The fog signal building, for example, is in the midst of being restored.

When it was time to cut the ribbon Wednesday, contractor Stella and his partner Charlie Lopez demurred, as did visiting dignitary Angie Lara, the newly minted associate state director of the Bureau of Land Management. Instead, scissors went to Carole Adams, who has her own national and state BLM awards for her volunteerism and leadership at Piedras Blancas.

“She’s the inspiration for all this,” Lopez said.

And Adams’ speech after she’d hacked the ribbon apart with a dull pair of office scissors? “Come on in!” she said, gesturing toward the lighthouse rotunda.

Work is set to start soon on the water tower. Then it’s on to replacing the lighthouse’s missing lantern room atop the tower and installing a replica of the Fresnel lens. That would bring the lighthouse back close to its original 100 feet, before the lantern room was removed in 1949 because of earthquake damage to the tower.

The original lens is on display near the Veterans Memorial Building, 1000 Main St., in Cambria. The historic glass lens has since been determined to be too heavy for the tall tower to support.

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