Zoning Ruling Clears Way For Relocation Of Historic Windmill Cottage

By: Tim Wood

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 – The zoning board of appeals has cleared the way for an iconic windmill to be moved to a new home.

The structure, which stood along Chatham Harbor since the early 1930s, will be relocated about 175 yards to the south on property owned by the great niece of the original builder.

Declared an historically significant structure by the historical commission, the windmill – which was built as a summer cottage and was never a working windmill – needed zoning board approval to be relocated to property owned by Robert Stevens and Ellen Briggs at 72 Shore Rd because it exceeds the zoning bylaw's 30-foot height limit by 1.9 feet.

Ellen Briggs has been working to save the windmill since it was placed under a demolition delay by the historical commission in September 2016. The delay is set to expire Feb. 28. The current owner, Briggs Way LLC, bought the shorefront property for $7.5 million in 2015 and proposed demolishing the windmill cottage and building a new home on the site.

Historical Commission Chairman Frank Messina said much of the structure that surrounded the original cottage was added in later years and was not historic, though the commission found that the windmill section built by Herbert Briggs around 1930 was historically significant. It took a lot of work to gain permission to move the structure across private roads to Ellen Briggs' property, but “all the starts were aligning” to save the windmill, a Chatham Harbor landmark for mariners since its construction.

Addressing the zoning board's variance criteria, he said it would be a hardship for the town to lose the iconic structure.

“We're losing a number of homes in Chatham, notwithstanding the demolition delay,” Messina said. “Any chance we can get owners to cooperate with us, and more importantly people who will accept these historic structures, I think it's a win-win for the town of Chatham.”

Others agreed. John Whelan, who is a member of the committee that oversees the annual Chatham Preservation Awards, said the windmill is “exactly the kind of structure we are trying to preserve.” Ginny Nickerson said preserving the structure would be “one of the best things that could happen to our town.” Robin Litwin, who grew up next to the windmill said the “heart and soul of the town of Chatham is kind of being eaten away” with the loss of historic structures, and saving the mill cottage will help hold on to some of the town's charm. Former board of health member Ted Whitaker said it would be an “absolute crime” not to save the building.

Ellen Briggs said her great uncle had the windmill built out of “salt-encrusted timbers” from old whaling ships and salvaged other material and artifacts from area barns and sheds that were part of the charm of the cottage, where she stayed summers while growing up. The cottage was the subject of a 1932 House Beautiful magazine story that stated “even barnacles were carefully retained on timbers used both within and without the cottage.” The building had three levels, with a bedroom on top, living space in the middle and a bath house and bedroom for servants in the lower level.

Herbert Briggs sold the property after his wife drowned while swimming in the harbor, but included a condition that the family be allowed to use the windmill cottage until his death. After he died in 1959, the family cleared out many of the items from the cottage. That was the last time Ellen Briggs was in the cottage until September 2016, when she began talking to her neighbors about moving the structure.

The windmill won't be right on the water any longer, but it will be restored on property that was once owned by her great uncle, Briggs said. It will be used as an “auxiliary building” and contain an office on the upper floor and general living space on the main floor.

Zoning board members unanimously backed the effort to save the windmill.

“It's a hardship to the town if we deny this,” said Don Freeman. “It is a rather unique property.” If ever there was an instance of a request meeting the “spirit and intent” of a variance, “this is one of them,” added David Veach.

In its new location the building will be close to W.J. O'Shea's property, and he was concerned about disruption should it contain a bedroom. Briggs said there were no plans for a bedroom, and the board included a condition in its approval of the variance that the windmill contain no sleeping accommodations.