City to begin restoration of Biloxi Lighthouse

Construction workers from the Biloxi firm J.O. Collins Contractor in the next week will begin a six-month restoration of the Biloxi Lighthouse, the city’s signature landmark that was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The $400,000 project — primarily funded by FEMA — will involve returning the lighthouse to its original grandeur. Initial phases of the work include removing the wrought iron fence at the base of the structure. While the fence is being restored, workers will move inside, restoring the bricks that line the inside of the 64-foot tall cast-iron structure. Midway through the process, the lighthouse will be enveloped by scaffolding and shrouded by a tarp while workers prepare its exterior for re-painting.

The project is significant because the storm-ravaged Biloxi Lighthouse — erected in 1848 — has come to symbolize the city’s resilience, standing tall amid the debris in the days after Katrina. In 2007, two years after the storm, the likeness of the lighthouse was chosen for an award-winning Mississippi license tag. Today, the flag-draped lighthouse remains one of the most-photographed icons in the city.

In fact, the restoration work will be the backdrop for the July 23 first-day issue of a new Postal Service stamp series titled “Lighthouses of the Gulf Coast.”

The importance of restoration project is not lost on those involved.

“This restoration has required careful documentation and detailed research of the materials that were originally used, from the original door at the base, and analyzing the cast iron, the bricks and mortar that line the inside of the lighthouse,” said Leigh Grimes Jaunsen of the architectural firm Dale and Associates. “It’s such an historic icon that we take this responsibility very seriously. The goal is to restore it to its original charm and spendor.”

The contractor who will oversee the restoration agreed.

“As Biloxi natives and lifelong residents, we are aware of how important the Biloxi Lighthouse is to the local community and the entire state of Mississippi,” said Chuck Collins of J.O. Collins, a Biloxi firm that has a history and expertise in helping preserve historic structures. “For this reason, it is of utmost importance to us that the restoration be done in a historically correct manner of the highest quality.”

Before Katrina, the Collins firm helped restore the Dantzler House, the Old Brick House, the Pleasant Reed House, and the Spanish House, all in Biloxi; Fort Massachusetts; train depots in Bay St. Louis, Ocean Springs, and Pascagoula; Grasslawn in Gulfport; Fort Barrancas in Pensacola; and the LaPointe-Krebs House, also known as the Old Spanish Fort, in Pascagoula.

The Biloxi lighthouse, which stands in the center median of Beach Boulevard, is reportedly the first cast iron lighthouse to be erected in the South. The light was civilian-operated from 1848 to 1939, and is notable for its several female lightkeepers, including Maria Younghans, who tended the light for 53 years. In 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the light’s operation. After being declared surplus property in 1968, the Biloxi Lighthouse was deeded to the city.

Katrina’s storm surge toppled many bricks that lined the interior of the cast iron tower. The storm’s winds broke many of the windows in the light cupola and destroyed the structure’s electrical system, but the city, realizing the significance of the Lighthouse, was able to restore temporary power to illuminate the structure’s light within days after the storm. An American flag has hung from the cupola railing since the storm, but will be removed once the restoration is complete.

It was the very history of the Lighthouse that has added time to the restoration project. Every step of the process has required approvals from FEMA, MEMA and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

“Anytime you’re undertaking a restoration project on an historic landmark – and we’re working on several of them besides the Lighthouse – you have a detailed process to go through, with FEMA, MEMA, and Archives and History,” said Mayor A.J. Holloway. “I don’t like the amount of time it takes, but we’re making sure to do it right.”

Online photo gallery: To see photos of the Biloxi Lighthouse through the years – including images of the lighthouse in 1909, after the storm of 1919, in the 1930s, and as it appeared pre- and post-Katrina – click here.

Progress report on other city historic properties

The Biloxi Lighthouse only one of several restoration projects working its way through the process. Here, as reported by city Historical Administrator Bill Raymond, is the status of progress on several other city properties:

Old Brick House: A resolution will be on the City Council agenda in two weeks to award a $636,000 contract to FMA Inc. to restore the Old Brick House. Work on the Back Bay Boulevard site should begin in early August and take about a year to complete.

Saenger Theater: In design phase. FEMA estimates $183,000 in restoration costs. Exterior construction should begin in September and take four months to complete. Interior work will follow.

Magnolia Hotel: In review at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Approval is expected next week with the project going to bid in three weeks. Construction will begin in August 2009 and take nine months to complete.

Swetman House: Exterior work in review at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Approval is expected next week with the project going to bid in three weeks. Construction will begin in August and take four months to complete. Interior work on hold until Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art relocates to its new facility, which is expected to be in two years.

White House Fountain: In review with FEMA/MEMA. The project is estimated to cost $115,000, and construction should begin this fall. Work is expected to take three months to complete.

City Hall: The project is currently in review with FEMA with final approval expected next week. The project — estimated to cost $625,000 — will go to bid in July with construction beginning September. Work is expected to take 18 months to complete.

Fire House Museum: In review at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Approval is expected next week with the project going to bid in three weeks. Construction will begin in August 2009 and take nine months to complete. FEMA estimates $107,000 in restoration costs.