The Cambrian

After more than a decade, Piedras Blancas Light Station fog signal building restoration complete

The fog signal building, the blacksmith shop building and the lighthouse at Piedras Blancas.
The fog signal building, the blacksmith shop building and the lighthouse at Piedras Blancas. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

After more than a decade of fundraising and often strenuous work, the more than $300,000 restoration/stabilization project at the Piedras Blancas Light Station’s fog signal building is complete.

After the repairs, the building — lauded for decades for its style and architectural details — looks pretty much the same to a casual onlooker.

And that was the idea, to make the boxy structure stronger, more resilient to weather, time and Mother Nature, while still retaining the building’s classical aura and architectural sophistication.

For instance, the project replicated exactly the original doors, sashed windows with the arched tops and other features. The Yosemite Preservation team, which restored the windows, replaced panes that could not be saved, but reused as many of the originals as possible. Will Dallons, a BLM volunteer, meticulously replicated the doors.

The project removed hazardous lead paint, installed a new cedar-shingle roof (including period reproductions of the original copper-ridge vents), added reinforced footings for the foundation, repaired cracks in the walls and stabilized the aged brick to make the building seismically sound.

Hefty steel I-beams now run along the top of the interior brick walls, locking the building in place in case of an earthquake.

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After more than a decade of fundraising and often strenuous work, the $300,000+ restoration/stabilization project at the Piedras Blancas Light Station’s Fog Signal Building is complete. Kathe Tanner ktanner@thetribunenews.com

Federal honors

The National Park Service added the classy blufftop building (along with the rest of the Piedras Blancas Light Station) to its National Register of Historic Places in 1991. The service singled out three specific structures for special mention: the circa 1875 lighthouse tower, the oil house and the fog signal building.

The report said of the latter, “this building is arguably the most architecturally interesting fog-signal building in California, if not the entire country.”

According to a 1999 Cambria Historical Society report, Congress commissioned construction of the unreinforced masonry structure, which was completed and put into service in 1906.

The fog signal building was designed to house and protect a signaling device that would alert approaching mariners about the rocky hazards surrounding Point Piedras Blancas, hazards that could be hidden from view by the area’s frequent dense marine layer that was often dense enough to mask light signal from the lighthouse’s First Order Fresnel lens.

Norman Francis, son of the 1930s/1940 lightkeeper of the same name, told the historical society that the signaling mechanism used two 15-horsepower, kerosene-powered engines, two cast-iron wheels about 4 feet in diameter, an air compressor and a big leather belt to blast out its three-second alerts, which were 27 seconds apart.

The National Park Service report cited the Piedras fog signal building for “its outstanding level of architectural sophistication. Most fog-signal buildings were largely unadorned, reflecting their more or less utilitarian usage.

“The Piedras Blancas fog signal building, on the other hand, is a careful and studied blend of Romanesque Revival and Neo-Classical themes that were popular at the turn of the century. The many semi-circular arches recall a Romanesque influence while the pediment formed by the gable ends and the brick cornice definitely shows a sensitivity to Neo-Classical forms. The architect even included a vestigial ‘lunette’ of recessed brick in the center of the would-be pediment,” the service wrote in its report.

The repairs

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has managed the light station since 2002. In a comprehensive management plan drafted in 2007, the Fog Signal Building’s serious state of disrepair was noted, along with a recommendation for full restoration.

As reported in the The Beacon, a publication of the Piedras Blancas Light Station Association and BLM, the management plan “set in motion an 11-year saga of rehabilitation and preservation that followed strict standards governing restoration of historic buildings.”

While in today’s billion-and-million-dollar terms, $300,000 for the restoration may seem a modest amount, BLM’s annual budget for the circa 1875 light station puts the expenditure in perspective. According to Ryan Cooper, BLM’s manager at Piedras, the station’s 2018 budget was a little more than $275,000, including costs for employees, vehicles, maintenance and repairs.

About a third of the project’s funding came from a Hind Foundation grant, which allowed engineers and building planners to start their work in 2008. Other donations contributed, especially those from the light-station association, as did lots of in-kind donations of the work that was sometimes persnickety and detailed, other times back-breakingly dull.

It was all a labor of love, Cooper said, which seems especially appropriate, given the detailed attention dedicated to the fog signal building by the artisans who built it.

“They could have just built a square building, put a roof on it and called it good,” Cooper said. “The people who built it were such artisans.”

The building and the project are important, he said, “but I think the biggest thing was how the community came together and got the project done. It wasn’t just BLM. It was the association, the Hind Foundation, different community members, local engineers and contractors cooperating with the agency. It never would have happened without them.”

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