Windmills in San Francisco are an 'old world' treasure Special

Posted Jun 26, 2011 by Jonathan Farrell
San Francisco as a world city has so many things that are of the “old world” as well as the “new” set in a mild climate, which is usually fog in summertime, for all to enjoy.
Murphy Windmill in Golden Gate Park is getting some long-over due attention and renovation. The adja...
Murphy Windmill in Golden Gate Park is getting some long-over due attention and renovation. The adjacent cottage will undergo a renovation as well.
Such treasures are overlooked by residents and at times ignored. Among them are the windmills.
People will travel to Europe to places like Spain and Holland to see the traditional windmills that are landmarks. Yet local San Franciscans forget that two windmills are right there in the city’s own collective backyard of Golden Gate Park.
Both windmills were built in the early 1900’s. They served to pump over a million gallons of water each day. They facilitated in saturating the vast sand dunes of “the outlands.” Everything outside the city’s initial limits in the 19th Century towards the Ocean where large sand dunes were, that was referred to as “outland.”
The irrigation the windmills facilitated was vital in helping to create the 1100 acres of Golden Gate Park.
For decades the North and South Windmills have been mere shadows of what they once were. Often called “the Dutch Windmill” and “Murphy Windmill” the tower-style windmills with horizontal axis turn-style vanes were among the largest of their kind in the world.
Use of windmills date as far back as ancient Persia and interestingly, like the tulip which was also from Central Asia, eventually Europeans assimilated these into their culture. Pioneering Americans made use of what they knew from “the old world.”
Like much of the architecture of the 19th and early 20th Century, familiar structures or motifs were used as sort of a reminder of where the various people had come from. Yet, perhaps in some instances, it was a way in which modern American cities like San Francisco could boast that all the finer things of the “old world” were present too as people ventured further westward.
The two windmills were structures that gave testimony to the ingenuity that life in a new town like San Francisco was capable of doing. And, the accomplishment of such was a something for San Franciscans to point out with esteem.
Their majestic vanes (or sails) turning in the wind have been missing from our local landscape looking more like ghostly structures from an old horror movie, like 1931’s “Frankenstein.”
“The windmills were erected not as picturesque curiosities, notes local historian Woody LaBounty, but as working apparatus to pump up aquifer water for irrigation purposes.” Researching archives and old records LaBounty discovered that “a city-paid windmill keeper had to furl and unfurl sails on the wings, often in high winds or stormy weather,” he said.
In those days “It was a dangerous job,” said LaBounty. He noted that back in 1906, windmill keeper John L. Hansen fell while trying to attend to one of the vanes. Hansen died as a result of the fall after landing on the lower platform 50 feet below.
LaBounty like Kathy Howard of the Golden Gate Park Preservation Alliance is pleased to see Murphy Windmill restored.
Previous attempts were made to maintain and restore the windmills (once in the 1940s and in the 1960’s and then again for cosmetic restoration to the Dutch Windmill in the 1980’s). But they were not enough to completely restore the windmills to their former glory, which according to a report compiled by the architecture firm of Carey & Company Inc. the windmills were in their prime from 1907 to 1935.
According to that report from 2003 and from The Campaign to save the Golden Gate Park Windmills committee, the two windmills started to decline when electricity was established as the power behind the motors that facilitated water pumps and irrigation systems.
That, and the constant flow of strong sea winds, wet fog and salt air, over the course of many years contributed to the windmills’ on-going deterioration.
As the sails or vanes dilapidated they were eventually removed, left to decay along with other exterior debris such as broken shingles, etc. along the sides of the tower structures. By the 1960’s the deterioration due to storms and such that the fund-raising effort and negotiations took considerable time.
The North (or Dutch Windmill) got a face-lift that started in 1976. Work was not actually done until the 1980’s. At that time the North windmill got wooden vanes restored. The Queen Wilhelmina tulip garden replanted yet the South or Murphy Windmill was left alone.
More than a decade passed before another effort was made in 2000 by the Campaign to Save the Golden Gate Park Windmills. That effort at restoration to Murphy Windmill was made in partnership with the City through the SF Recreation & Parks Dept.
As of now, work crews are rebuilding the Murphy Windmill. Its tower only an outline frame and its base exposed revealing the intricate pattern of wooden planks and beams that were reminiscent of 19th Century craftsmanship.
“We have been following the Secretary of the Inferior Standards on the restoration of this local landmark,” said project manager Dan Mauer.
He noted that as with any historic restoration project, there is always additional work required while trying to document and salvage existing materials. “So that way we can maintain the existing design and fabric of the structure once rebuilt,” said Mauer.
The project is being carried out in phases. Lucas Verbij a contractor in the Netherlands is working upon important parts of Murphy Windmill such as the mechanical gears and pump.
The windmill-keeper’s cottage, (referred to officially as “Millwright Cottage”) which also suffered extensive neglect and damage over the years, will be renovated as part of the project. The current phase is estimated at $2,435,000.
Speaking to Assistant Director of Property Management, Rec. & Park Dept. Nicholas Kinsey was enthusiastic about the renovation/restoration project.
"We are very exited about this project and we have been diligently pursuing restoring and renovating the worker's cottage at Murphy Windmill," said Kinsey.
He noted that Bacchus the owners of Spruce Restaurant in Laurel Village on Sacramento Street are considering the venture. "We have selected Bacchus Management as our partner in transforming the Millwright Cottage from a facility that is closed to the public to one where the public will be able to come and enjoy the history of the Windmill and delicious food" said Kinsey.
"Until this point, the work has focused on the seismic stabilization of the cottage and retrofit of the windmill but we are eager to partner with Bacchus to create a restaurant that features sustainable food." he said.
"While the final plans for the cottage are not yet finalized, we are currently envisioning a space that will offer healthy, comforting foods to park visitors and a demonstration garden so that children and school groups can learn about sustainable agriculture,” said Kinsey.
The first two phases of the restoration project have been estimated for completion by October. “Finishing phases will follow, time-schedules for that have not been established yet,” Mauer noted.