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History Feature- Exploring Old Baldy's Unique Appearance

Updated: Oct 14

One of Old Baldy's most notable trademarks is its exterior appearance. The Old Baldy staff members often hear remarks from day visitors on its unique coloring. Observations of the lighthouse's patchwork exterior fill almost all school reports that feature Old Baldy. Have you ever wondered the reason after 200 years that Old Baldy features such a unique pattern? Old Baldy staff member McAllie Givens explores the history that caused this noteworthy feature of the Old Baldy Lighthouse in this latest history feature!

Unknown to many, Old Baldy’s familiar exterior changed appearances throughout its tenure within the U.S. Lighthouse Service. The exterior of the tower changed from black, to white, to the mottled tones one sees today. Old Baldy was not the only lighthouse built between 1816 and 1817 in the Cape Fear Region. The first of three Federal Point Lighthouses was also being constructed just nine miles north of Old Baldy, where the remains of Fort Fisher stand today. While Old Baldy guided ships at sea into the Cape Fear River through Old Inlet, the Federal Point Lighthouses helped mariners to locate New Inlet, an alternate route into the Port of Wilmington that allowed southbound ships to avoid the dangerous Frying Pan Shoals.


With the construction of several lighthouses in the region, it was critical to distinguish each lighthouse from another. Surprisingly, the U.S. Lighthouse Service’s proposal to build Old Baldy did not specify Old Baldy be painted a color, but denotes the outside should have a rough plaster. However, the proposal did mention that the keeper’s dwelling be whitewashed. The earliest suggestion of painting Old Baldy is found in 1818 correspondence written by members of the U.S. Lighthouse Service discussing if Old Baldy needed to be painted. By 1822, the 10th edition of the American Coast Pilot, reported that Old Baldy was painted black “in order to distinguish it from the light-house on Federal Point,” which was painted white.


By 1880, the Army Corps of Engineers closed New Inlet and rendered the third Federal Point Lighthouse useless, consequently, the Lighthouse Service reactivated Old Baldy. Not needing to distinguish anymore between Old Baldy and the Federal Point Lighthouses, the U.S. Lighthouse Service once again discussed painting Old Baldy in 1885. By 1886, Lighthouse officials described the exterior of Old Baldy as white. In the years to follow, the U.S. Lighthouse Service whitewashed Old Baldy regularly. In 1935, when the U.S. Lighthouse Service permanently decommissioned Old Baldy, she was left to her own fate.

No longer under the auspice of the Federal Government, Old Baldy was not cared for in the decades to follow. Since the exterior of Old Baldy was always painted, black or white, when used by the Federal Government, the color of the stucco did not matter when it was being repaired. Lacking regular exterior painting and general upkeep, weathering caused patches of stucco to become visible. No records have been found regarding work done on the exterior of the lighthouse between 1935 and when the Old Baldy Foundation repaired the exterior of the lighthouse in 1990. The 1990 exterior repairs were completed by Contractor Specialties based out of Mantua, Ohio. While the original plan was to match the new stucco with the existing stucco, the sample stucco was not given enough time to cure and dry in order to reveal its final color. This caused the exterior to have a more mottled, rather than uniform, appearance. Between 2016 and 2017, International Chimney Corporation based out of Buffalo, NY, repaired any unsound stucco in preparation for the 200th anniversary of Old Baldy.


The mottled tone exterior of Old Baldy today is a 20th-century snapshot. Preservation efforts of the Old Baldy Foundation solidified the external state as was in 1990. This trademark appearance captures a point in time after Old Baldy was left to the forces of mother nature for over 60 years. The next time you are standing in front of Old Baldy close your eyes and imagine it being painted black.


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