TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. – After weathering hurricanes, dodging Civil War cannon volleys and enduring the incessant erosion wrought by tides and rising seas over the past 160 years, the Cockspur Island Lighthouse is getting a much-needed makeover.
Fort Pulaski National Monument is funding a restoration project that will repair mortar, apply protective exterior paint and remill the lighthouse’s wooden interior structures. The project coincides with the National Park Service’s Centennial celebration this year.
“The structure is in surprisingly good shape,” said Stephen Hartley, a heritage craft consultant with the University of York who is leading the 10-month project. Hartley is also teaching National Park Service employees restoration techniques so they can properly maintain the iconic landmark in the future.
The current structure dates back to 1855, when it was enlarged following a devastating hurricane the year before.
But in addition to the elements, Hartley said over the years the lighthouse has had to contend with detrimental human forces, some of which were intended to repair the structure.
One previous restoration attempt used a type of mortar that was too hard for the lighthouse’s soft Savannah Grey bricks. Over time, as the bricks absorbed water and swelled (and the harder mortar did not), they cracked and eroded between the mortar.
The trick now, Hartley said, is finding the balance, not only between the appropriate mortar, but also in determining when to replace it. He uses gauges called Rilem tubes to distinguish between serious and superficial cracks in the structure.
Earlier this month Hartley and the National Park Service hosted 20 volunteers, including members from the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA Savannah) and students from the Savannah College of Art and Design, who learned about the restoration efforts and participated in the repairs.
“It’s fascinating to come out and put back in a piece of history,” said Ryan Murphy, president of AIA Savannah, who is also an architect with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District’s master planning division. The AIA Savannah, which is as almost as old as the Cockspur Island Lighthouse, collected money from its member volunteers and donated it to the lighthouse.
After volunteers removed inappropriate mortar, Hartley and NPS maintenance worker Miguel Roman demonstrated how to properly proportion, mix and apply natural cement to the mortar joints.
Natural cement is three parts sand and one part cement, and contains clay impurities which give the mortar more strength.
Volunteers quickly learned that applying mortar wasn’t as easy as Roman made it look.
Ed Krolikowski, deputy to the chief of Engineering Division at Corps’ Savannah District, and an AIA Savannah member, appreciated the chance to get outside and work with his hands.
“It’s a good learning experience,” he said.
In addition to the mortar repair, Hartley is currently testing four types of paint in 2-foot by 3-foot sections on the lighthouse to determine which best withstands the marine environment. The existing paint, a type of pool paint, repels water but doesn’t allow the building to breathe, Hartley said.
Following the several-month test period, Hartley and his team will remove the pool paint and apply the best suited replacement paint.
All these repairs, however, still don’t address the biggest threat to the lighthouse: rising seas.
Hartley said at high tide water can lap just below the front door, which is about eight feet above the base.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District partnered with the National Park Service and a contractor in 2012 to place a stone revetment around the edge of the island and the base of the lighthouse. The revetment project also took steps to encourage oyster growth.
“The rocks have done wonders, but they’re not the complete answer,” Hartley said. “We don’t know how to solve the problem caused by rising sea levels.”
The restoration project is expected to run through July and will update the original structures report, which was last completed in 1994. Structures reports document the restoration efforts to date and provide detailed information to guide future restoration efforts.
Despite these challenges, Hartley, who said he has been doing preservation work since he was 14, seemed positive but practical.
“The hardest part about preservation,” Hartley said, “is it’s just delaying the inevitable.”
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~ Jeremy S. Buddemeier, Corporate Communications Office