All artwork this page copyright Meryl Ann Butler 2003
Source of Light: The Old Cape Henry Lighthouse
Printed and hand dyed cotton fabrics embellished with Prismacolor pencil
The first structure authorized by the First U.S. Congress was the Cape Henry Lighthouse, which stands at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia Beach, VA. It is an octagonal sandstone tower, located near First Landing, the place where the English settlers who later founded Jamestown first set foot on land, on April 26, 1607.
Symbolically, this represents the understanding ('under our standing') of our country's role and responsibility to be a beacon of light to the world. The octagon image calls to mind the eight-fold path of Buddhism, which include: Right Understanding, Right Mindedness, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Living, Right Effort, Right Attentiveness, and Right Concentration. Interestingly, the Native American Medicine wheel has connections to the eight compass directions as well. These symbolic connections with diverse religions remind us of the fact that the United States of America was founded upon the idea of religious freedom for all. Also, it is interesting to note that one of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, was exceptionally fond of the octagon shape. He used it extensively in designing his Charlottesville home, Monticello, and also in his final, personal architectural masterpiece, Poplar Forest, an octagonal retreat house surrounded by an elaborate villa landscape in Lynchburg, VA.
Plans for construction on the Cape Henry Lighthouse started in 1774 and was delayed several times. Construction was finally begun in 1791. The lighthouse was completed in 1792, and lighted in October of that year. It is a 90-foot unpainted sandstone tower.
In 1857 a first-order Fresnel lens was added and a brick lining was built inside the tower for reinforcement. Confederate raiders destroyed the lens, but it was replaced in 1863. In 1870 the tower began to crack. It was decommissioned in 1881, and a new lighthouse, one of the tallest cast iron lighthouses in the United States, was built only 357 feet to the southeast. It was feared that the old tower would collapse, but it is still standing today, located in Fort Story, an active Army base. The public can tour the lighthouse for a small fee.
Even though this lighthouse is no longer active as a working tower, it is certainly still active as an archetypal image, a powerful symbolic reminder of our nation's role in the world. The Old Cape Henry Lighthouse is a National Historic Landmark and serves as the official symbol for the City of Virginia Beach, VA.
For more information contact the Old Cape Henry
Lighthouse Visitor Center: (757) 422-9421
Click here to see an aerial view of the lighthouse (image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.)