Rennovated Old Mill Has a Fresh Look

The llama hair was an intriguing touch.
Restoration workers seeking to patch up San Marino’s Old Mill in recent weeks brought in a big bag of llama hair, according to John Quinn, president of the Old Mill Foundation. They mixed it by hand into a batch of exterior plaster, enhancing the fibrous integrity of the building’s new skin — and mirroring a technique employed by the padres of the San Gabriel Mission when El Molino Viejo was built circa 1816.
Thus, the Old Mill celebrated its 200th anniversary with a timely makeover. Restoration work has been completed to address issues both structural and cosmetic, giving the venerable building hope for lasting another century, maybe two. It was completed in time for Magical Music at the Mill, the summer concert series under the stars; the next event, on June 25, will feature Chroma Salon, with voice and strings in a mix of classical, tango, ragtime and film score music.
Quinn recently walked through the Old Mill’s patios, down its walkways and alongside its massively thick walls to point out features that have been shored up, areas that have been improved and others that are still works in progress.
The upgrades were paid for by a $100,000 grant the city received last year from a program administered by the office of county Supervisor Mike Antonovich. More recently, $32,000 was set aside in the city’s 2016-17 fiscal year budget for additional capital projects.
The most important aspect of the just-completed work was to address water that was mysteriously finding its way into the building’s vintage walls and reducing interior plaster to a powdery dust. Water can be an enemy to any construction, and especially something that reflects the sensibilities of the early 19th century. When the padres sought to build a mill to grind their grain, they picked a site astride a stream, set down lava boulders and river stones as a foundation, laid in a wall of baked-brick masonry, and topped that with rows of adobe blocks.
Two centuries later, the restoration work patched cracks in the cornice that rings the top of the building so that rainwater cannot dribble between the wall and its outer layer of plaster. Also, the plaster was replaced — llama hair and all — where it had delaminated, in hopes that water won’t leach through the west wall from the St. Francis Patio.
Will this solve the problem? Only time will tell.
“With buildings this old,” Quinn said, “there’s no scientific proof or records to know exactly how it was structured or what the impact of 200 years on a building would be. So it’s an educated guess.”
But the restoration consultant, Quinn added, determined that the volume of water getting inside was slight — nothing running in the walls, no puddling. So the foundation was relieved to hear that.
The work also included refinishing the interior wood floor and tidying up the room that now serves as the office.
The most notable casualty was the ivy that once engulfed the face of the Old Mill. But it was determined that the vines were trapping water against the wall — a recipe for trouble, given recent history.
“I think the mill is in a much better preservation situation than it has been in for the last 50 years,” Quinn said as he gazed up at that newly bare facade. “We’ve really done some very thoughtful work.”
And it is ongoing. The ramadas at the front and back of the Old Mill are being rebuilt, using an allocation of $20,000 in the new city budget. They were not built with treated lumber, and their beams have deteriorated over the years. (The Lady Banks climbing rose in the mill’s front patio is expected to survive this work.)
Other improvements include the construction of a concrete slab at the back of the Pomegranate Patio and a relocation of the trash enclosure so that caterers can have a staging area, and get to it more easily, for the various functions held here. More than a dozen broken roof tiles were replaced. Some mismatched replacement paving stones were taken out and substituted for ones that more closely reflect the original look. The city will pay for new plumbing in a busted fountain. And the caretaker’s cottage will get a new roof — though not, for now, the interior remodel that the foundation had sought.
A personal passion for Quinn — who happens to live just next door to the Old Mill — is improved lighting on the grounds, using fixtures that conform to the mission era, as well as up-lighting for the trees.
“So when you come in at night,” he said, “you’re going to say, ‘Oh, my God.’ I think it will create this sense of bucolic beauty.”
And heighten the enchantment of San Marino’s oldest landmark.

Tickets for the Chroma Salon concert on June 25 cost $24 general admission, $20 for Old Mill Foundation members. The program begins at 8 p.m. For further information, contact the Old Mill at (626) 449-5458 or oldmill@sbcglobal.net, or visit old-mill.org.

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