What Color Is The Lighthouse?

Bob Munson

The immediate answer to the title question seems quite obvious: white. But the complete answer is: yes and no. For its first 24 years the lighthouse was the color of the native sandstone out of which it was constructed. There is no concrete evidence one way or the other as to whether the brick tower was painted. However, like the raw sandstone, the brick was probably left its natural color. What we do know is that the first things to be painted were the metal lantern and gallery. The metal had to be protected from rusting. The early Light Lists state, “the lantern is painted red.” This may have been brick red to match the tower, although the official U.S.L.H.E. (United States Light House Establishment) red tended to be brighter, like a fire-engine red to make it a more obvious day-marker. One suggestion I’ve run into is that it was painted with just the usual “red-lead” primer. So far, I haven’t been able to determine whether the composition of lead primer is naturally red (I doubt it). I haven’t investigated when it became red. Lead goes way back as a paint/primer base. Zinc tends to be more yellow. Any experts on Victorian paint out there? Especially maritime?


Moving on, by 1879 it had become painfully obvious that the two sandstone faces exposed to sea wind (the south end and west side) were disintegrating due to high winds laden with marine salts. The two walls in question were given a thick layer of Portland cement-mortar (which would tend to seal water underneath). The mortar was then painted with “two coats of stone-color, rubber paint.” “Stone-color” sounds tremendously vague, but in the Victorian era “stone-color” (“stone-buff” in England) referred to a specific color. Samples of this paint, which I studied in the U.S. Navy Historical Center, Washington Navy Yard, Washington DC., tend to be a creamy white with a very faint tint of yellow to a faint tan/beige. (how vague can you get? It depends on a very subjective analysis). I’ve also studied paint chips from both the Victorian Royal Navy (Royal Dockyard, Portsmouth, England) and the Victorian registry of shipping line identifying colors. Sort of the same deal as USA. None are reliably tied to the Munsell Color System, which is based on the three properties of color: Hue, Value (lightness/brightness), and Chroma (color purity). The best thing about the Munsell system is that it can accurately deal with faded paint. The situation is not helped by modern paint manufacturers who each have their own color grading systems. The bottom line regarding color is that when former Facilities Manager Charles Schultheis last painted the lighthouse, he chose to not use whitewash white, but a “stone-color”. This has faded somewhat over the years but if you look at the lighthouse it has a more mellow creamy white than stark white-white. It was decided we could not afford to paint the lighthouse again.


Why does it matter, I hear you cry. Well, for starters we’re talking about the treatment on just two walls. We could leave the south and west walls pre-1887 stone-color white, and make the lighthouse schizophrenic, by painting the north and east walls the color of the first paint ever put on them (in 1887): Whitewash White. Because the lighthouse had to be entirely painted in 1887 to save the whole thing from marine laden wind destruction, we are locked in an interpretive year of 1887. We can’t take the lighthouse back to bare stone for the same reason the USLHE couldn’t. Actually, 1887 is the optimal interpretive year. The eight first-generation lighthouses on the west coast were in place, and the eight second-generation lighthouses were up and coming. These 16 fulfill our interpretive mandate to deal with the initial development of Aids to Navigation on the west coast of the USA. In 1887 the old Point Loma light was still a fully functioning light, representing our era. The decision to abandon it would not come until the next year, at which point the quality of maintenance began to erode. Why sink money into a building soon to be abandoned? I don’t think any of us would like to depict our lighthouse with peeling paint, and I suspect our visitors would be underwhelmed by that appearance and want to know why NPS wasn’t doing its job. In addition, we would have to paint the whole thing Whitewash White next time Facilities repaints it, which again places us square in 1887.


Now, for the final reason for 1887. That was the year the lantern went from red to black. Anyone want to go back to painting the lantern red (and figure out just how red is red)?


So, if anyone asks “what color is the lighthouse?” you can tell them the correct answer is Stone Buff.


Last revised 13-Jan-19