The Block Island Times
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Featured Letter: Refining and enlivening a masterpiece

Restoration of the Southeast Lighthouse, Part 1: Design intent and the effects of entropy
Nov 14, 2012
Photo by: ©2012 Walter Sedovic Architects The restoration project team assembles on the Watch Gallery of the Block Island Southeast Lighthouse during a recent investigation of the landmark’s physical condition.

Hurricane Sandy (October 2012) has reminded us of the intense ferocity of Atlantic storm systems — and of the responsive strength and stability of our historic lighthouses. Block Island Southeast Lighthouse (1873), an iconic National Historic Landmark, exemplifies steadfastness and durability in its very form: an inverted octagonal cone that is exceedingly difficult to topple. Adding to its volume is the sheer inherent toughness of its materials — stone, brick and cast iron — and its overall mass, with walls that measure several feet in thickness.

Besides ferocious storms, our architectural heritage sites also remain vulnerable to the effects of both time and entropy, which — along with proximity to sea water  and salt-laden winds — have taken a toll on some key stabilizing elements of Southeast Light, particularly its lantern and exterior galleries. Over the next several months a team of specialized architects and engineers will be conducting on-site research and forensics, preparing an updated diagnosis of the core condition of Block Island Southeast Lighthouse. This work is a precursor to the development of plans to restore the rich palette of authentic architectural elements that have become compromised because of their advanced state of deterioration — a manifestation of the challenging marine environment in which the lighthouse stands.

This project is made possible through the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, which is providing critical oversight, as well as the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, which is providing base funding. Additional funding and support crucial to the project’s development and completion are through the generosity of myriad private institutions and the general public. Fundraising efforts will be ongoing.

The architects and engineers assisting Block Island Southeast Light Foundation include Ventrone Architecture, Walter Sedovic Architects and Edward Stanley Engineers. Each firm is represented by individuals involved in the recent award-winning restoration and relighting of Block Island’s North Light. One promising note about the process of the Southeast Light restoration — even during its preliminary evaluation phases — is the planned public educational outreach that will accompany the findings and recommendations process. Visitors to the Southeast Lighthouse will be able to engage in rare behind-the-scenes opportunities to see the inner workings of the lighthouse, including its structural framing and integral design elements that have kept it standing for nearly 140 years. These programs are intended to enhance the public’s awareness of technical and philosophical underpinnings of sustainable preservation — coupling restorative material science and techniques with a light footprint on the environment, topics that are at the forefront of public concern.

With the generous assistance of Robbie Gilpin, who skillfully operated a personnel lift, the restoration team recently was able to initiate access to many of the hardest-to-reach exterior elements of Southeast Light. It was the first opportunity for the team to conduct a close visual examination of the underside of the Main/Watch Gallery and its intricate structural supporting brackets. The results of this initial survey yielded the following likely scope of continuing investigations and eventual restorative work:

Investigate and identify water infiltration issues that exist in the tower

Develop masonry repair plan based on the water infiltration investigation findings

Repair and restore damaged and missing cast iron elements at tower watch room level

Repair and restore damaged interior cast iron stair and railings

Replace non-historic gallery and lantern railings with reproduction of original railings

Reglaze lantern and restore roof

Investigate deficiencies of and repair existing lantern roof

Specific observations were made relating to causes and pathologies of observed deterioration. Lantern destabilization revolves around cast iron degradation, specifically of the large and complex plates comprising the Lantern Gallery and the Watch Gallery. Principally, deterioration has been affected by proximity to salt water and the action of summer and autumn storms, which in turn cause changes in barometric pressure that can force water deep into the exterior envelope, affecting the internal structural systems as it seeps into interior spaces.

In contrast to the cast iron components, the brick masonry, lantern structure, windows and roofing are in very fine and serviceable condition. Physical probes — openings cut into the watch room cast-iron drum walls (both interior and exterior) — allowed for viewing the internal structure and have been invaluable toward understanding and evaluating the extent and level of accelerated deterioration. Comparisons to original construction drawings verified that the lighthouse stands as originally designed. These two sources, coupled with field discussions, allowed the team to identify and resolve virtually every major component of work that is likely to constitute the full restoration.

As this restoration continues to unfold, it will continue to provide the public with a fascinating glimpse into traditional building technologies, methods, and design intent that sought to create a building that would be durable, beautiful and fully in tune with its environment. Its lasting presence verifies this profound and timely approach to building.

We now have an unprecedented opportunity for all visitors to the Southeast Light — young and old, novice and professional admirers of historic buildings alike — to witness and engage in the process involved in the thoughtful stewardship and restoration of an architectural icon, and to more deeply understand how we can ensure that this lighthouse will solidly stand as a beacon over Block Island’s southeast shores for generations to come.

Walter Sedovic, FAIA LEED

and Jill H. Gotthelf, AIA FAPT

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