Preservation Virginia Blog


Insights from the Cape Henry Lighthouse: Let’s Talk About Paint

Paint cross-section showing the first-generation paint, a red paint, applied to the Cape Henry Lighthouse metal stairs, 200x. Photo courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg foundation.

The cast-iron spiral steps at Old Cape Henry Lighthouse were installed in 1867 to replace the original wooden stairs from 1792. For the past century, that spiral stair has been painted black, but it wasn’t always that color.


Cape Henry Lighthouse has recently completed several major preservation projects. In May 2019 we completed the restoration of the dune and construction of a new dune plaza. This winter we completed remediation of all lead-based paint on the stairs and interior metal components. We contracted with Atlantic Environmental to safely remove the existing paint from the historic interior using a sponge-based media that would protect the original fabric of Old Cape Henry Lighthouse.


This project has provided us with the unique opportunity to address a quandary. According to the 1867 inspection report of the Old Cape Henry lighthouse, the stairs were “iron, painted red.” This color obviously differs from the black steps hundreds of thousands of guests have climbed to reach the top. It also differs from a dark brown color that was found during a paint analysis completed in 1990.


To determine the original color of the cast-iron stairs we enlisted the aid of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to identify the color and composition of the original paint used on the lighthouse staircase. Paint samples were taken from the interior metal staircase and mounted for microscopy, an analytical technique used to analyze the paint stratigraphy and allow researchers to reconstruct the paint history of the metal staircase.


The dark brown paint color from the 1990 study was found to be original; however, the dark brown had significantly “shifted” from a high-gloss red to the brown that was found as it was exposed to the harsh elements of Cape Henry. Further analysis determined that the likely cause of the shift actually came from the paint components themselves.


The original paint was found to contain hematite and red lead pigments, with a possible kaolin clay filler – all of which are consistent with coatings on architectural ironwork in the 19th century. The binding media was identified as a natural tree resin called Balsam Copaiba, used by painters as early as the 18th century and used in the 20th century as a glossy additive that was later discontinued because of its tendency to darken. This suggests that the red paint that was used originally would have had a high-gloss finish. Red lead pigments, under certain conditions, have also been known to shift to a brown or black color over time. Either of these, the resin or the red lead pigment, explains why a dark brown color was found during the previous examination of the staircase.


Approximately ten paint generations were identified. The first, applied directly to the metal, had been a red paint. The next several generations were red lead primers with red-brown finish coats. Paint generation six was a dark brown paint and generation seven was the first application of a black paint. The metal staircase was re-painted black in generations nine and ten, with ten being the most current paint before the remediation began. With remediation now complete, the staircase has been painted red once more, returning it to the color it had been when first installed at Cape Henry Lighthouse in 1867.

This project is just one example of the work Preservation Virginia does to protect historic places across the Commonwealth for the future; work that is dependent on dedicated staff and visitors to our site. With the tower inaccessible to visitors during this project, its reopening later this summer will be the first time its original paint color has been displayed in decades. We hope you join us in experiencing this structure as it was originally painted and continue to support projects like this. From Preservation Virginia to all of you, thank you.


category: cape-henry-lighthouse, untold-stories