North Carolina's Outer Banks boasts five lighthouses, or "light stations", which collectively attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year (see author's note [1]). The buttons at right show the five lighthouses in order from north to south. Each button links you to the page(s) about the lighthouse it pictures. These navigation buttons will be on the left sidebar of each lighthouse page. The "Lighthouses" button in the top menu will bring you back to this main page.

Here are some interesting facts. Among these five lighthouses:
  • Currituck Beach Lighthouse is the only unpainted structure.
  • Currituck Beach Lighthouse is the only one that is original to it's site. The other four replace prior structures at or near their current sites.
  • Currituck Beach Lighthouse is the only one not on or completely surrounded by Park Service property.
  • Cape Lookout Lighthouse is the only one whose light stays on 24 hours a day.
  • Cape Lookout Lighthouse is the only one with an actual ship's hatch for a doorway to the gallery.
  • Bodie Island Lighthouse is the only one with an outside ladder from the lower gallery to the upper gallery (around the beacon windows).
  • Cape Hatteras is the only one whose door to the gallery is on the south side. All the rest open onto the north side of the gallery.
What makes them similar, and what makes them different?

It is easy to overlook the individualistic details of these inspiring lighthouses when actually confronted with the sheer size and grandeur of such amazing structures. The finer details of these architectural marvels usually go unnoticed by all but those visitors who come specifically because of their interest in architecture. Comparing details is difficult since the lighthouses are many miles apart. So to address that problem, the lighthouses are presented here, side by side, with some decidedly non-technical notes on a few of those often overlooked details.

Of the five, Ocracoke is the most strikingly different. It's the shortest (beacon at 75 feet), and the oldest (completed 1823), and is constructed of brick covered in cement or plaster (much like Bald Head Lighthouse of that same era -1818). Its asymmetrical shape and off-center beacon room (easily discernable in the photo at left) gives it a quaint crudeness that befits its more humble height. Because of its complete uniqueness among these five lighthouses, the rest of this page will focus on the other four, which came later, and which took on decidedly different proportions.

Much taller than any before it, the successful design of the current Cape Lookout Lighthouse, completed in 1859, became the model for the Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island and Currituck Beach lighthouses, which came after it. At 165 feet, Cape Lookout was much taller than its 95 foot high predecessor at the same site. This provided a more visible day marker, and a longer visible range for the beacon. The only problem was that the new Cape Lookout Lighthouse, and the first two patterned after it, each tall and slim and red bricked, looked too much alike by day. To remedy this, a paint scheme was devised so they could be easily identified from each other in daylight. But underneath the paint and beyond the general shape, there are other differences and similarities that are interesting.

Windows - Cape Lookout (1859) has rather plain, simple windows, as shown here (left and right). If not for the curvature of the walls, they could easily be mistaken for normal house windows. The example at left is near the top of the structure, where the brick flares outward. It has a stone (or perhaps formed concrete) lintel to support the brick over the window. Note the roughness. This may be due to some damage (Civil War?), or perhaps just poor workmanship or poor materials.

The first lighthouse built after the successful model of the 1859 Cape Lookout Lighthouse was Cape Hatteras (1870). The project forman was Dexter Stetson, whose fine work lives on, not only in the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, but in the two that followed it. The tall slim, deeply recessed windows of Cape Hatteras (shown at left) are not at all house-like, and look even plainer than those of Cape Lookout. But the windows of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse were not always quite so plain.

According to the Cape Hatteras Light Station National Historic Landmark Study by Ralph Eshelman, each window originally had a "granite pedimented hood". They were similar to the pediment over the lighthouse door, just on a smaller scale. Evidence of these hoods is clearly visible in the above right photo. An 1893 black and white photo of the lighthouse from NOAA archives shows the "pedimented hood" over the windows as it was originally constructed. While the photo is not extremely clear, the form is unmistakable in this detail (at right) from the archive photo. But Eshelman states that all of these hoods were "removed sometime after 1969". Close inspection of the author's own 1973 photos of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse indicate the presence of only a drip sill projecting from the base of each window. It is obvious the ornate hood that was above each window was already gone by November of 1973.

Other design elements of the Cape Hatteras structure were very different from Cape Lookout, and will be covered farther along. As far as window design, the window treatments became even bolder when the next two lighthouses were constructed.

  Bodie Island Currituck Beach
After Dexter Stetson completed the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, he took on the task of building the new Bodie Island Lighthouse (1872), and then the Currituck Beach Lighthouse (1875). Except for the paint, these last two are practically twins. As evidenced in the two photos at right, the window treatment is virtually the same on both lighthouses. The windows became an even bolder design element than the decorative hood originally over the Cape Hatteras windows. Currituck Beach, having been spared the almost charlatan paint schemes endured by the other three tall lighthouses, retains the warm, comfortable feeling of a fine brick home. The window's stonework contrasts the brickwork, providing a classic elegance that is hidden from view at Bodie Island by the paint scheme.

As mentioned, other cosmetic elements on later lighthouses changed drastically from the Cape Lookout design, while still retaining the tall proportions and general construction techniques it established. Here all four lighthouse bases are compared.

Above Left: Cape Lookout is bricked to the ground, and has no decorative base at all. Some form of wooden stairs has apparently always been the method of accessing the raised entrance.
Above Right: With painted panels framed in octagonal stonework, Cape Hatteras has always been a showpiece. The grand oversized entrance (right) is unique among North Carolina's lighthouses. It's almost as if Cape Hatteras was destined to become an eye-catching showpiece even before it was given its unforgettable candy stripe paint scheme three years after it was built.
Below Left: Bodie Island's base is unpainted octagonal stonework of obvious quality and craftsmanship.
Below Right: While similar to Bodie Island, the Currituck Beach octagonal base has a lower ring of stonework, with brick between it and the upper stonework ring. Were it not for the paint, both lighthouse entrance buildings would be identical.

Another interesting area of design comparison is the top of these lighthouses. We'll begin with Ocracoke (right). It is completely different in all respects from the four later tall lighthouses. The beacon window frames use a pleasing diagonal astragal form, whereas the others all have rectangular window framing. Ocracoke has no lookout gallery below the beacon as do the others. At far right is shown Cape Lookout, which has a simple flared top to support the lookout gallery. Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island and Currituck Beach all have gingerbread brackets to support the gallery.

These images show Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island and Currituck Beach (left to right respectively), with a close-up of their gingerbread brackets shown beneath each one. The Cape Hatteras brackets appear slightly heavier, and in fact, are slightly more ornate than the other two. Bodie Island and Currituck Beach look identical. They seem to be taller with more delicate proportions than Cape Hatteras, although they are quite similar in general appearance to Cape Hatteras.

Also note the main spindles in the Cape Hatteras gallery railing (left photo) are much more ornate than the simple cylindrical pipe verticals of Bodie Island, Currituck Beach or Cape Lookout.

Each of these lighthouses has its own personality, defined as much by its location and surroundings as by its size, shape and color. So click one of these buttons to choose your first lighthouse to visit and enjoy.

Note [1]- North Carolina has three other standing lighthouse structures which are not on the "outer" barrier islands and therefore are not included. They are Oak Island Light Station and Bald Head Lighthouse near Cape Fear, and the remains of a pre-civil war river range light on the Cape Fear River at Price's Creek. These may possibly be added to this web site at some later date.

Navigate to individual lighthouse pages with these buttons.

Cape Lookout Lighthouse Open House dates
Copyright © 2003 Fred Hurteau           * Copyright information and image use policy *


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