NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — The Windmill Building on Clarke Road is an inspiration for investment in Narragansett history and preservation of the town’s iconic structures, says Robert O’Neill, vice president of the Narragansett Historical Society.
The town recently gave the society a long-term lease for the 1935 building so that it can become its new headquarters (the society is now based in South Kingstown).
“The building and adjacent structures will allow enough space for archives, allow enough open space that we could have continuing, rotating demonstrations of different important aspects of the history of Narragansett,” he said.
Costs to repair the building and prepare it for these activities are estimated to reach nearly $500,000 according to assessments from architects and builders, he said. He said that $300,000 will make it basically usable, but an additional $200,000 more will help make it an attractive home for public displays of information and history.
He said that fundraising plans include reaching out to organizations like the Champlin Foundation and the Rhode Island Foundation as well as to various individuals in the community who have been generous with other community activities.
“I think there are many people who care about the town and want to preserve its history and historical structures. They want to preserve what is left and not have it taken down” as has happened in the past, he said.
The society already has received two separate donations of $5,000 each toward its goal, said O’Neill, a retired South County obstetrician, who has been involved with Narragansett historic preservation for more than 30 years.
Narragansett Town Manager James Tierney praised the society for undertaking a significant fundraising effort. The building’s lease gives the historical society two years to create a financial foundation before starting actual work on the structure.
“The Narragansett Historical Society continues to preserve the history of this town as they seek to save another gem of our town and restore it to be their new home in Narragansett,” said Tierney. “The building was scheduled to be demolished until the Historical Society approached the town with their vision.”
He added, “We thank them for their efforts on behalf of our community. The collaboration between the historical society and the town is another example of how working together we can make this community better every day.”
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.
Records show its original name was Windmill Building-Bosworth Folly, he said. 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 explained.
Another such building, called the Windmill Cottage, located at 144 Division St., East Greenwhich, was owned for two days by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of Cambridge, Mass., who bought it for $2,500 and sold it two days later for the same amount to Catherine Van Buren Greene.
She was the wife of George Washington Greene, grandson and biographer of Gen. Nathanael Greene, the Rhode Island native son who was a hero of the Revolutionary War.
And then there are others — windmill buildings in Jamestown and two in Middletown — that actually had turning blades for the practical purpose of grinding meal or other work, he said.
At 560 Ocean Road in Narragansett, the historic Dunmere oceanfront historic home had a functioning windmill to draw water from a well to a second level for a cistern during the day to filter out at night on the property, O’Neill said, adding that after a few hurricanes blew away the blades they were never replaced again.
“Narragansett has a remarkable history,” he said. “Unfortunately, as we are presently, there’s no good source for explaining it and preserving it and using it to inform people who are going to live here 10 years from now, 50 years from now, as to what kind of a community that they are joining.”
He gave another example, pointing to Hazard Castle at 333 Ocean Road in Narragansett. “When asked about it, they (most town and South County residents) have no idea of what you’re talking about and for some of them, their only recollection is that it was The Lady of Peace retreat house,” he said.
Joseph Hazard was a partner in a family textile mill in the 1800s in nearby Peace Dale. Hazard built a medieval-style structure known as “The Castle” on his Seaside farm in Narragansett Pier, and the majestic large stone building includes a 105-foot turret.
Hazard was instrumental in the development of Narragansett Pier as popular summer resort.
Roman Catholic church officials purchased the property from the Hazard family in 1951 and ran a spiritual retreat for nuns there for several years called Our Lady of Peace Spiritual Center.
The Hazard Castle was sold for $2.6 million in 2012 by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence to the Middlebridge School.
Other points and notes in town history are also equally important, O’Neill said, including trotters raised for horse racing, Guilded-Age hotels, Fort Green, Camp Varnum and an old Indian cemetery, he said.
He also said, “I think if we lose touch with who we are, if we lose that identity, which to a great extent Narragansett has, there are parts people know a little bit about, but no good resources to inform people.”
That’s where the Narragansett Historical Society, the Windmill Building and preservation come together. If the information is easily accessible to the current and future residents of the town and South County, then everyone benefits, he said.
“So very few know much about the real history of Narragansett,” he said. “It’s a matter of knowing who we are and having our community informed and intending to reach out to the schools and to have various demonstrations, such as pictures of the castle and information in a central place about it,” he said.
The nonprofit Narragansett Historical Society was founded in 1978, with the mission of preserving the town’s history. The organization documents the history of important structures, organizes tours of historic buildings and serves as an expert resource for researchers.
In January the Narragansett Recreation Advisory Board voted to approve the draft lease in concept and the town council in mid-February granted a 25-year lease of the building on town land near Narragansett Parks and Recreation offices.
The historical society will pay $1 to the town annually for the lease, which begins March 1 and terminates on Feb. 28, 2045. There is an option to renew the lease for a further 25 years as well.
“The Windmill Building is unique and has the potential to add to the kind of restoration, if you will, of the identity of Narragansett, who lives here, what you can do and how important that is,” he said.