Antique-style ceiling fans are a product of Pa. farm

Handcrafted: Solid mahogany blades stir as much nostalgia as air at classy restaurants and luxury homes.

October 24, 2004|By Mary Ellen Graybill | Mary Ellen Graybill,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW PARK, Pa. -- Jay McGinnis, 46, farms 500 acres of scenic cropland near the Mason-Dixon Line, and he has created an unusual side industry with Woolen Mill Fan Co., which makes old-time belt-and-pulley ceiling fans with solid mahogany blades.

McGinnis finds inspiration in the work of Alexander Calder (1898-1976), the American kinetic artist who added movement to sculpture and created mobiles.

Although McGinnis is succeeding as the designer of ceiling fans, he once failed seventh-grade art at Kennard Dale Middle School. When his parents transferred him to York Country Day School, he found that he enjoyed the subject. Later, he discovered black-and-white photography. He went on to earn a degree in sculpture at Carnegie Mellon University. Then he applied the fine arts skills to his fan business.

McGinnis credits part of his success to experiences in his childhood. Growing up near the fields and streams of Fawn Grove with his younger brother, Doug, McGinnis says he liked looking out the car's back window at windmills on trips with their parents. He was able to acquire and take apart some old windmills. Art and motion became the foundation for his interest in designing ceiling fans.

"Less is more" would be his philosophy. He uses less speed in the fans he builds today than was used in Victorian times, he says. Less speed in the fan blades makes for more observable kinetic motion. And the effect of the fans is part whimsical and part practical, he says.

"It's just the aesthetic, really," he says, although "they move some air."

Creating an environment that is timeless is the goal, he says, and he believes that the only way to achieve this is to be careful through the entire production process. That's why an Amish foundry and machine shop are used to give the work its old-time appearance. Not even the shipping crates are mass-produced, McGinnis says.

"As far as I know, I'm the only handcraft fan maker that makes everything in the U.S. Even my motors are made in the U.S. In fact, I approach it with the fact that, how can I make it more valuable? What can I do to increase the value of this?

"Parts are solid bronze, there's no plating in anything ... and the blade is solid mahogany. All the other blades that I know of are laminated."

One thing is more, rather than less: cost. The fans, priced under $10 in 1886, for example, can cost up to $1,200 each. They were once powered by water motors and installed over a shop table to keep flies off the food or to cool the workers. Now they are decorative and use electricity. Selling to architectural designers is usually done through a catalog. When the call comes in, McGinnis gets to work. He has an architect friend draw up the plans.

"The fans have modern electric gear reduction motors, which can be mounted on a wall or ceiling or hidden," says an ad for the fans, sold only to the trade.

There's not a hint of what goes into making a fan fun. It's the delicate, balanced, almost surreal look of the old-time fans suspended from the ceiling that appeals to builders and architects.

Although the cost of the crafted ceiling fans is high by mass-production standards, McGinnis is generous with his art and his farm. It is home to a variety of horses, and to peacocks screeching and fanning their colorful plumes outside a room he designed of mostly glass overlooking rolling hills outside.

McGinnis' barn, high on a hill, is also the informal setting for folk artists such as Chris Davis and his band, Lucid Dreamers, who perform for free during occasional concerts on Friday evenings.

But it's the fan business that is circulating far and wide. Woolen Mill Fan Co. has provided handcrafted ceiling fans to such movies as The Stepford Wives and to elegant homes around the world. Some of the fans are sold to restaurants, not to stir flies but to add a touch of nostalgia. A new restaurant in York is installing some of McGinnis' ceiling fans, says restaurateur John Browning of Stewartstown.

The machine work is done through Sunnyburn Welding, an Amish company that uses circa-1900 techniques. Emmanuel Esh does the machining at his home near Sunnyburn Welding in York County.

"The fans are quite elegant and beautifully proportioned," says Isao Oishi, an architect who recently won the honor award for garden structures from the Maryland Society of Architects.

McGinnis models his fans after several antique designs he bought from a 1976 Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

"They're pretty well gone," McGinnis says, sitting in his circular glass room with several fans humming overhead.

"The earliest catalogs I have were found dated back to the 1880s. And they were originally run by water motors -- turbines that ran off the water system in the city," he says.

Once meter water started, that system of power ended. The companies that built the water motors were in various cities -- Baltimore had one, as did New York.

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