It was 123 years ago today that the Old Point Loma Lighthouse lighted the night for the last time, ending its nearly 36 years of service to mariners.
Within a week of being taken out of service, the third order Fresnel lens was dismantled, crated, and shipped back to the Lighthouse Depot in Staten Island, New York. The lenses were simply too expensive and too valuable to be destroyed. Unfortunately, the records indicating where the Old Point Loma Lighthouse lens was ultimately located were destroyed in a fire, so we can’t say with certainty if our lens still exists or where it’s located.
In 1891, no one thought to preserve or protect the lighthouse. Vandals wrote graffiti in the building, broke out windows, and even used the basement as a comfort station. By 1910, the kitchen extension / lean-to on the back of the building had fallen off from neglect, and by 1913, the glass and metal roof from the tower were gone.
In fact, in 1913, the commanding officer of Fort Rosecrans recommended that the building be demolished. But others recommended repairing the building and converting it into a military radio station.
Simultaneously, an organization called the Order of Panama was planning a monument to honor Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, and their plans were to raze the lighthouse and put a 150-foot tall statue of Cabrillo in its place. To support the Order of Panama’s efforts, president Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation on October 14, 1913 setting aside one-half acre of land, including the lighthouse, as Cabrillo National Monument. The Order of Panama never implemented its plan, leaving the lighthouse in place, and the organization ultimately disbanded.
In 1915, the Army invested $360 in enough repairs to make the building usable as a radio communications station.
In the early 1920s, the army encouraged soldiers and their families to live in the lighthouse to help slow the decline of the condition of the structure. From 1921 to 1934, Mrs. H.E. Cook lived in the house, selling postcards, other items, and refreshments in the parlor to make a living.
In 1933, the National Park Service took over administration of Cabrillo National Monument from the War Department, and began immediate planning to restore the lighthouse. That first restoration was completed in 1935. Other significant restoration activities occurred in 1983 and 2003, and continue even today in 2014 with the seismic retrofitting.
The fact that the lighthouse remains standing today in its current state–160 years after construction began in April 1854–is a testament to historic preservation and conservation, and the hard work of many, many people through the years.
Each year we honor the lighthouse by celebrating “Open Tower Day” on August 25th, Founder’s Day of the National Park Service, and November 15th, the anniversary date of the light first being lighted in 1855. And, based on a volunteer’s suggestion, beginning in 2015, we’re going to add a third “Open Tower Day” going forward. That day will be today, March 22, to commemorate the extinguishing of the light for the last time.
I can think of no other edifice constructed by man as altruistic as a lighthouse. They were built only to serve. They weren’t built for any other purpose…
–George Bernard Shaw