Efforts Underway To Save Iconic Shorefront Windmill

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Topics: Historic , Local History

The Briggs Windmill Cottage prior to the demolition of the structures surrounding the 1930's-era mill building. The zoning board last week cleared the way for the iconic structure to be relocated about 175 yards to the south on property owned by the great niece of its original builder. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – Efforts are underway to save the iconic Chatham Harbor-front windmill which was placed under demolition delay by the historical commission last month.

Commission Chairman Frank Messina said he's been in touch with representatives of the owners of the 66 Briggs Way property, who want to remove the 86-year-old windmill and build a new house. They're eager to find a new home for the windmill so they can move ahead with their plans, he said.

“We're trying to make this happen,” Messina said. “This is not a barn, not a shed, this is a significant structure.” He couldn't provide further details at this time but said things were “moving forward.”

Ellen Briggs, whose great uncle built the mill, brought forward details of its history after reading a story about the commission's placing a delay on demolition of the structure in The Chronicle. She still owns and lives in the home her great uncle, Herbert Briggs, built in 1949 on a tract of land he purchased in the 1920s.

He first built a large house along Shore Road which Briggs said was known as “the White House.” In about 1930, he built the windmill house closer to the waters of Chatham Harbor.

A 1932 House Beautiful magazine article describes how the windmill grew out of the need for guestrooms for the main house. “Windmills in the vicinity along the Cape were studied, photographed and measured, and finally one was faithfully reproduced with adaptations to the owner's needs,” which included a play house, bath house, guest house and extra servant's quarters.

Building material was salvaged from shipwrecks. “Even barnacles were carefully retained on timbers used both within and without the cottage,” the article stated. Shingles and other elements were taken from dismantled bars and sheds; millstones were located for the doorsteps, “and, after along search, a weathered post suitable for a staircase newel was taken from an old fence in Brewster.” Any new material that was used “was given an aged appearance by silver-gray stain after a special method of wire brushing and sand blasting.”

Plans show three levels in the building. The very top of the mill was a bedroom with two bunks; the main floor was an octagonal living area, with a kitchen in the attached ell. On the lower level was a bedroom originally for servants, and a bath house. Later, Briggs said, a bedroom replaced the kitchen which was moved to the lower level. The living area had a fireplace, which, according to the article presented a challenge regarding the chimney placement. It was ingeniously concealed behind slanted wooden panels on the first and second floors.

Briggs and her sister still have many of the items that can be seen in a photo of the living room published in the magazine, including lamps and furniture. She still uses a table that came off an old whaling ship. A ship's figurehead poised over the fireplace is gone, however, stolen, she believes.

The structure was cozy, but that didn't matter much to two kids growing up there summers.

“It wasn't big, but nobody cared,” Briggs recalled.

In 1948, Herbert Briggs' wife Helen went swimming in the harbor and drowned.

“That pretty much ended my great uncle's life,” said Ellen Briggs. Herbert Briggs decided to sell the big house and the windmill. “He didn't want to see the water,” she said. He built a new, smaller house on a corner of the property, the house Ellen Briggs now owns at 72 Shore Rd., and sold the other two buildings to Louise Tate. But he added a condition to the windmill, which allowed the Briggs family to continue to use it until he died.

For much of her years growing up, Briggs spent summers living in the windmill, sleeping on the second floor along with her sister while her parents stayed in the first floor bedroom.

“It was so special,” she said of those times. “It was the coolest thing.”

When Herbert Briggs died in 1959, the family cleared out as much of the interior items as they could. Although the family retained the 72 Shore Rd. house, Ellen Briggs had not set foot inside the windmill since then, until a few weeks ago.

“It was pretty moving for me,” she said at last week's historical commission meeting. On a tour of the structure with Messina, she was able to point out the original elements of the building that remain, including the terrace and stonework along the shore side of the building. While the windmill section remains much as it had been, the original ell has been expanded and altered, and other additions put on the building in more recent times.

“I think Chatham would be missing a real iconic building” if the windmill is lost, she said. That structure and her home are the only remaining original structures along the Briggs Way loop. Five houses there, most of them less than 75 years old and therefore not under the historical commission's purview, have been torn down and replaced by more modern structures.

“We're the last house standing,” she said. “That makes it a priority to save the mill.”