DESTRUCTION ISLAND LENS EXHIBIT HALL
One of the most spectacular exhibits at the Westport Maritime Museum is a working first-order Fresnel lighthouse lens that came from the Destruction Island lighthouse, located 57 miles north of Westport. Constructed in 1890 in France, the lens contains twenty-four bull's-eyes and 1,176 prisms.
The exhibit is contained in its own building on the museum grounds. Because the lens is in excellent condition and is exhibited in a building that allows viewers to see all sides as it rotates, the local exhibit is considered by lighthouse experts to be the best first-order Fresnel lens display in the world.
The 94- foot tall ironclad conical Destruction Island lighthouse was an important aid to navigation for mariners along the Pacific coastline for 117 years. The light was first lit on New Year's Eve at 4:26 p.m. in 1891 and remained in service until the U.S. Coast Guard removed the lens from the isolated lighthouse in the spring of 1995. A modem automated light replaced the first order Fresnel lens, which was placed in temporary storage. In April 2008, the Coast Guard shut off the automated beacon after determining that with mariners relying on modem onboard navigation equipment, the light was no longer needed.
In the summer of 1995, Coast Guard District 13 headquarters in Seattle published an offer to lease the lens, valued at $6 million at the time, on a long-term basis to a Washington State organization able to display it at a secure and handicap-accessible site available for public viewing by no later than 1998.
The board of the Westport South Beach Historical Society discussed the offer and unanimously voted to submit a request for the lens lease. A housing and display proposal for the Destruction Island Lighthouse lens was prepared and presented to the Coast Guard in late summer. The Society was notified that its proposal was accepted in late October. At the Nov. 10, 1995 general meeting, Westport South Beach Historical Society President Roni Redman announced that the U.S. Coast Guard had offered the lens on long-term loan to the Westport South Beach Historical Society. The offer was unanimously accepted by the membership.
The necessary paperwork was completed and the Coast Guard agreed to store the lighthouse lens until the building was completed, and then deliver to its new home. The loan agreement for display of the lens is granted in ten-year increments,with renewals contingent on the Historical Society retaining the lens in a safe and secure environment open to public viewing on a regular basis.
Having secured the opportunity to display the Destruction Island lighthouse lens, Historical Society board members immediately entered into serious discussions as where to display it. Initially, a plan was proposed to place the lens on a table in the museum's Coast Guard Exhibit Room. After receiving dimensions information, however, the board member learned that the lens is 17 feet high and weighs six tons. The table display idea was quickly tabled.
Discussions for a time then surrounded the possibility of placing the lens base on the floor and cutting a hole in the roof of the museum building to accommodate its height. That potential plan also was quickly abandoned, based on state and national Historical Register Requirements to maintain the historical integrity of the original museum building structure, as well as the weight-load that would be placed on the first floor. Given that the Society had already agreed to display the lens, the inevitable conclusion was soon reached that a separate building to display the multimillion dollar lens would have to be built.
A steering committee called “Lighthouse '98” was formed to secure grants and other means of acquiring the estimated $200,000 needed for the building and lens installation. Steering Committee members included co-chairs, Interim Maritime Museum Director Bill Hanable and Roni Redman, along with Laura Rust and Sonja Cowan.
Tokeland artist and longtime Society member and supporter, Bob McCausland, created an artist's rendition of the light and accompanying building. Architect David Leavengood, who worked on the remodeling of the State Capitol Museum in Olympia, was hired early in 1996 to develop plans for the new building on the Maritime Museum grounds to house the lens. The structure was first proposed to be located on the northeast comer of the Maritime Museum grounds where the gazebo is located. As plans progressed, the decision was made to move the site of the 70-ft. long building to the southeast corner of the property.
Design considerations for the building included not only constructing it at the lowest cost possible, but also making sure it complimented the existing architecture on the site. Wooden siding, dormers, and matching window details make the building fit right into its environment near the museum. The original building plans included bullet-proof glass in windows that were planned to be located directly in line with the lens and visible from Westhaven Drive and the museum grounds. The windows were eventually removed from the plan, requiring those who wish to view the lens to enter the building to do so.
Double doors on the north side of the building allow maintenance of the lens with a fork lift. The floor is reinforced to support its weight, with the lens placed at the eastern end of the 70-ft. building to allow for photographs and viewing from the greatest distance. The building is designed to hold 50 occupants at one time, making it not only suitable for local tourism,
but also to accommodate tour groups and busloads of students.
Highly handicap accessible, a ramp to the balcony allows even those in wheelchairs to get close to the lens. A handicap-accessible ramp goes around three sides of the lens to a height of six feet, allowing visitors to get an excellent view, something that would never have been possible had the lens remained on remote Destruction Island that it once called home.
Keeping the interior structure simple and open allows for maximum flexibility for the development of exhibits and display of artifacts or interpretive programs. It also enables one volunteer to host the entire exhibit.