By James D. Charlet
November 6, 2020
The United States Life-Saving Service was the 19th century precursor to today’s U.S. Coast Guard. The service existed on all of America’s coasts – Atlantic, Gulf, Pacific and Great Lakes – from 1871 to 1915. Over the course of those 44 years, the surfmen braved tumultuous seas to save more than 177,000 lives out of the over 178,000 to which they responded – an incredible success rate.
In 1915, the service merged with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to create a new organization: the United States Coast Guard. The Life-Saving Service’s history is all but gone and forgotten – their medals stored away in private enclaves, their uniforms moth-eaten and many of their wooden stations long decayed. Almost nothing remains except the legacy of their stations’ architecture, which has inspired contemporary examples that can be found up and down the Outer Banks among local businesses and homes.
Life-Saving Service Architecture on the Outer Banks
Nationally, there were 42 different styles of station design built from 1871 to 1915. On the Outer Banks, however, the styles were limited to eight: the 1874-type, 1876-type, 1878-type and 1882-type, as well as the Quonochontaug-type, the Southern Pattern, which was exclusive to North Carolina, the Chicamacomico-type and the Chatham-type.
Most stations had at least two different buildings of different dates on the site. These were replacements for the original structures, 20 to 30 years apart. The older one, in turn, was often re-purposed, usually as an additional boathouse.
The giants of national and North Carolina Life-Saving Service station architecture were J. Lake Parkinson (designs from 1876-1882), George R. Tolman (1882-1894) and Victor Mendleheff (1887-1918). Mendleheff was by far the most prolific, with 95 station designs to his credit constructed in 14 states across the country.
By 1905, North Carolina had 29 lifesaving stations spread between the Virginia and South Carolina state lines. They averaged about 6 to 7 miles apart, so were a far more common sight than the few lighthouses. The average citizen was therefore very familiar with Life-Saving Service architecture, which featured watchtowers of various sizes, dormers, rafter tails and Gothic board and batten upper wall siding.
The seven original Outer Banks stations, Jones Hill (later renamed Currituck Beach), Caffeys Inlet, Kitty Hawk, Nags Head, Oregon Inlet (on the south side), Chicamacomico and Little Kinnakeet were all built in 1874 and are examples of that era’s architectural design aesthetic. The latter two are still standing in Rodanthe and Avon, respectively. Distinguishing features were the arches around the gable ends of the roof, eave supports known as rafter tails or corbels and brackets, intricately cut Gothic board and batten upper wall siding, and an open watchtower on the roof.
The design was from a government committee “set of standardized plans,” says Life-Saving Service expert Wick York, and not from architect Francis Chandler, as frequently attributed.
The Conner’s Supermarket’s storage building in Buxton was inspired by the 1874-type architectural design of the Oregon Inlet station, according to family patriarch John Conner Sr. The Hatteras Island supermarket has been a family-owned icon since 1960. The adjacent storage building was built by Conner and is still family-owned but is now rented out.
In 1959, Conner says his family got a National Park Service concession at the Pea Island Campground. “I was 10 years old and – being 15 miles from the nearest child my age – the men who worked on the ferry and the U.S. Coast Guard men were my friends,” Conner recalls. “I spent many hours at the Oregon Inlet station. I have always loved that building and its architecture, thus the style of the warehouse.”
Stations built in 1878 actually used the 1876-type design, which displayed motifs nearly identical to the 1874 style, except for an enclosed watchtower and small exterior pantry/storage additions to the sides. Examples of this architecture were found among the Wash Woods, Pennys Hill, Poyners Hill, Paul Gamiels Hill, Kill Devil Hills, Pea Island, Gull Shoal, Big Kinnakeet, Creeds Hill, Durant and Bodie Island life-saving stations.
Cape Hatteras, New Inlet, Ocracoke, Cape Fear, Oak Island and Cape Lookout life-saving stations were built in 1882. Their distinctive features, designed by J. Lake Parkinson, include a two-story, rectangular shape with smaller first-floor additions, a larger, square watchtower on an extreme end of the roof, and – the most copied design element of all – the straight cross-shaped brace on all gables.
This motif is found extensively throughout contemporary Outer Banks architecture. Midgett Realty’s Rodanthe office is beautifully inspired by the 1882-type. The business is owned by an especially famous Life-Saving Service name from Hatteras Island. Dozens of Midgetts were in the service and later Coast Guard. Best-known are Little Bannister Midgett III, Rasmus Midgett and John Allen Midgett Jr.
“The Midgetts are big around here,” says principal owner Tim Midgett. “We built the current version of our Rodanthe office building in 1987. We worked closely with a gentleman named Greg Hamby from here on the Outer Banks to design our take on a traditional Outer Banks style Coast Guard station look. Given the Midgett family name and the long Outer Banks heritage associated with that name, Midgett Realty has strived to include a similar ‘look’ in many of our office/commercial buildings.”
One of the most readily identifiable styles, if not easily pronounced, is the Quonochontaug-type station design. (The name, QUAN-no-CHAWN-tawg, derives from an Algonquin tribe in Rhode Island and translates to “black fish.”)
North Carolina stations of this design by George R. Toleman were Portsmouth Island (1894), Core Banks (1895 and later called Atlantic), Currituck Beach (1903), Caffeys Inlet (1898) and Oregon Inlet (1898). They were large, rectangular structures that appeared to be one-story but were actually two with an unmistakable watchtower integrated into a large sloping roof with dormers. Captain George’s Seafood Restaurant in Kill Devil Hills is an example of a contemporary building exhibiting a similar design aesthetic.
There were only four Outer Banks stations exhibiting the Southern Pattern design that was exclusive to North Carolina: Little Kinnakeet, Ocracoke, Fort Macon and Bogue Inlet. All were built in 1904 by architect Victor Mendleheff. They featured a very typically southern (but atypical for lifesaving stations) porch, and large, two-story, square watchtowers.
Again, only four, all exclusive to North Carolina and built from 1911 to 1913 by Mendleheff: Chicamacomico (1911), Kitty Hawk (1911), Nags Head (1912) and Poyners Hill (1913). This style has become synonymous with Outer Banks lifesaving station architecture because examples of it still exist in Rodanthe and Kitty Hawk. Many of their features – the watchtower, dormer windows, Greek porch columns, cedar siding and roof – have been copied throughout the area.
The Pea Island Art Gallery in Salvo is a very faithful replica of the 1874 Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station and was based on its original blueprints, according to owner Kim Robertson. “The decision was deeply intuitive, and I loved it.” Robertson says. “One of the things that was really important to me is that it would visually age fairly quickly with the cedar and look like it had been here for a very long time.”
Robertson says many are drawn to the gallery just because of the architecture. “They think it is a really old building and want to know more about the history and inspiration.”
Keeper’s Galley at Haven on the Banks in Nags Head is a stunning enlarged replica of Mendleheff’s 1911 Chicamacomico-type style and the newest example of the architectural legacy of the Life-Saving Service on the Outer Banks. Completed this year as a major events center, Keeper’s Galley can be seen from some distance as one travels U.S. 158 and is the centerpiece of a cottage complex called Haven on the Banks.
“Our vision with the entire project was to honor the local heritage of the Outer Banks, focusing on the lighthouses and related structures such as the lifesaving station,” says co-owner and developer Tara Wilkins.
“We thought that the Keeper’s Galley, which stands like a beacon and is a central gathering place, should be designed tall and strong, emitting a feeling of safety,” adds Wilkins. “People are intrigued by the entire concept of Haven on the Banks and Keeper’s Galley. They love the feeling of safety and appreciate the integration of heritage and history into modern day structures.”
The North Carolina editions that exemplified more Mendleheff design motifs were: Cape Lookout (1916), Creeds Hill (1918), Cape Fear (1918), Wash Woods (1919), Bodie Island (1925) and Big Kinnakeet (1929). They looked like a plain two-story house of the time but had a roof and cupola similar to Mendleheff’s Gulf-type stations that he designed in Texas and Louisiana from 1903 to 1923.
Remaining historic Outer Banks life-saving stations
There are several U.S. Life-Saving Service stations remaining on the Outer Banks in some form or another. Restored or reconstructed, highly modified and modernized are: Wash Woods (1933), now a vacation rental; Caffeys Inlet (1899), now the Sanderling Resort’s Lifesaving Station restaurant in Duck; Kitty Hawk (1874), now home to the Black Pelican restaurant; Kitty Hawk (1915), a vacation rental; and the Pea Island station (1932), a Salvo business and residence, and the station’s formerly adjacent 1932 cookhouse, which is now a Manteo museum devoted to preserving the legacy of the only lifesaving station in the U.S. to have been manned by an all-Black crew.
The 1918 Creeds Hill station, now a privately-owned vacation home, is completely faithful to the original on its exterior, but its interior condition is unknown. The exterior of the old 1898 Oregon Inlet station has been partially reconstructed but is now abandoned. The 1888 Cape Lookout station is not only abandoned, but also unrestored and unprotected. It will not remain much longer as is.
The National Park Service’s 1874 Little Kinnakeet station was beautifully reconstructed, but is not open to the public; however, the adjacent 1904 station is sadly neglected. On the other hand, the park service’s 1894 Portsmouth Island station has been gorgeously restored and is open to the public; it is well worth the arduous trip getting there for a visit.
The park service also owns the 1879 Bodie Island station and its 1916 boathouse, as well as the 1925 Chatham-type station, which were moved from nearby dunes and relocated at the entrance to Bodie Island Lighthouse.
And last, but not least, one of the best complete restorations is exhibited in the 1911 Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station’s eight-building complex in Rodanthe, which operates as a nonprofit museum.
James D. Charlet is a local historian, author and public speaker who is better known as Keeper James. Charlet, of Hatteras Island, was the site manager of the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site & Museum for a decade and is a member of the U.S. Life-Saving Service Heritage Association. His book “Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks, Dramatic Rescues and Fantastic Wrecks in the Graveyard of the Atlantic” debuted this year.