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The Windmill Building in Narragansett is undergoing a renovation project to become the future home of the Narragansett Historical Society.

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Some significant exterior work is underway at the Clarke Road Windmill Building that the Narragansett Historical Society is working to preserve.

Rudi Hempe, a society board and building committee member, said window replacement and new cedar shingles are part of the renovations underway now. In addition, some interior work is also happening, he added.

“We are really progressing well,” said Hempe, noting that a number of local contractors and builders are assisting either with donated labor or with discounted pricing.

The reason for the work is simple, said Dr. Robert O’Neill, society vice president, in several previous interviews about the preservation effort. “It is an investment in town history that could be forgotten if never undertaken,” he said.

This building, once marked for demolition, is an oddity because the faux windmill that makes it iconic is worth the efforts to keep it standing, according to society members. It eventually will be the society’s headquarters and hold various kinds of historical records, photographs and other materials as well.

The town gave the society a long-term lease for the 1935 building in part because the historical organization wants to relocate from South Kingstown, where it rents office space, to a location in Narragansett.

Although the town helped with the lease, the group still needs to raise money from donations whether individual, corporate or foundations interested in supporting this organization.

The historical society will pay $1 to the town annually for the lease, which terminates on Feb. 28, 2045. There is an option to renew the lease for another 25 years as well.

Last year a pickleball tournament fundraiser took the society over its $212,000 goal for exterior renovations. The $4,500 raised from it completed the society’s phase one fundraising. An annual road race also helped the society in the past.

This first phase includes exterior work such as replacing windows, including installation of weather and rain-proof barriers to prevent water entry and rot, and new doors as well as work on the foundation.

“The goal is to restore the building to as close as the original, using modern materials and construction techniques to make sure the building will last several more decades,” said Hempe.

“The windows employ today’s high-tech insulating features but from the outside, look like the original windows,” he added, noting that the society’s architect had to come up with a special barrier system to prevent leakage around the windows which are mounted in the sloped or tapered sides of the tower.

The tower has four levels but only the first floor will be open to the public. In addition, society members have said that winterizing the building, replacing the roof, removal of the vinyl siding and re-shingling the entire building are included.

“Through a stroke of luck,” Hempe said, “the society located the original front door from the summer White House used by U.S. President Calvin Coolidge at a building materials recycling firm.”

“We’re going to use it as a front door and that is quite fitting given the history of this door and that we’re a historical society,” O’Neill added.

Hempe said the society plans to have the exterior portions finished by fall. Shirley Eastham, the society’s long-time president who died suddenly a few months ago, was thrilled when that door was obtained and looked forward to having it serve as the front door of the windmill building.

O’Neill pointed out that both work and costs — along with fundraising — are still on the society’s to-do list for the interior work.

Costs to repair the building and prepare it for the society’s use are estimated to reach nearly $500,000 in total according to assessments from the architect and builders.

Interior work includes upgrading and replacing electrical wiring and fixtures. The well-preserved knotty pine boards that formed the inside walls will be reinstalled once the insulation and utilities are in place, Hempe said.

The Windmill Building gets its name from having the shape and appearance of a windmill, but it never actually operated with any turning blades to produce power for particular reasons. Hempe said, the society is planning to replicate and install windmill blades, but they will not be functional.

Actual records show its original name was Windmill Building-Bosworth Folly, O’Neill has explained in previous interviews. The term “folly,” used in the 1930s, “means it didn’t serve a big practical purpose, such as over in Newport on Hammersmith Farm that has a miniature one. Folly implies structure more decorative,” he added.

The building was built to be a home. In the 1940s it became an antiques shop and then later returned to be a residence for families and also a local clergyman and his sister.

In the 1970s it served as an infirmary for children attending Camp JORI (Jewish Orphans of RI) and was a nurse’s living quarters during the camp’s operations, he said.

In the fall, winter and spring months, it was rented to University of Rhode Island students during the school year. The Town of Narragansett acquired the camp’s grounds and structures when Camp JORI relocated to South Kingstown.

So far, funding has come from foundation grants, individual donors, businesses, contractors who are suppling the pro bono labor or reduced rates and project volunteers.

The fundraising has been encouraging so far, said Hempe, but more is needed.

“You never know what you run into when renovating an old structure,” said Hempe who has worked on other non-profit endeavors elsewhere over the years. “There are inevitable surprises and some can be costly to address,” he said, adding his personal hope is the project can be completed in 2023.

“Many of us involved are getting long in the tooth. It is important that we do all we can, to preserve the rich history of Narragansett and South County for generations to come,” he said. 

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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