One of the most iconic historic buildings in Sunnyvale is hiding in plain sight, nestled in front of a vast, modern industrial complex to the north of the train tracks. It is the Iron Man Museum, housed in the former administrative building of the Hendy Iron Works, which graces Hendy Avenue, named after the company’s founder.
Hendy Iron Works was the first and most important industrial plant in the agrarian settlement of Sunnyvale and contained one of the earliest foundries and machine works in California. The factory was in continuous operation from 1906 to 1946 and, along with the canneries, a major employer in the town. Its founder, Joshua Hendy, born in Cornwall, UK, in 1822, arrived in San Francisco in 1849 and, recognizing an opportunity in an area where milled lumber was scarce, opened a lumber mill only two months after his arrival in the state. Seven years later, he bought property in San Francisco and founded the Joshua Hendy Iron Works. Joshua capitalized on the need for mining machinery at the time and produced improved hydraulic equipment, quickly becoming a leader in his field; many of Hendy’s products are still a world-wide standard today.
After Joshua’s death in 1891, his nephews John and Sam took over the company – which was completely destroyed during the earthquake and fire of 1906. Enticed by the offer of free land – 32 acres along the Southern Pacific Railroad line, and close to the SF Bay – Hendy’s relocated to Sunnyvale. By 1907, they employed 300* skilled mechanics in one of the earliest foundries and machine shops of the area *(different sources quote 400 workers). Their mining equipment was shipped all over the U.S., to Western Canada, Russia, China, Japan, the Philippines, and the Dutch West Indies. During the construction of the Panama Canal, Hendy’s “Hydraulic Giants” were used in the excavation.
The involvement of the U.S. in World War One steered the factory in a new direction, as marine propulsion engines were produced to power cargo vessels. Engines of the same basic design were also built in the next world war, with slight modifications, to be fitted into the Liberty ships – 754 in total. Between the wars, Hendy equipment was used to regrade Seattle, and the company engaged in hydroelectric operations such as producing gates and valves for the Hoover and Grand Coulee dams, which helped Hendy’s survive the Depression years. Apart from big machinery, they also built miscellaneous smaller items such as manhole covers and ornamental street lamps, many of which grace San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Former machinist Charles Moore took over the company in 1940 and secured Navy contracts worth ten million dollars for defense production. The facility expanded to 55 acres during WWII and produced the greatest output in its existence. They were able to turn out one engine every twenty-one hours! When an Oregon company building Liberty ship engines was consumed by fire, Hendy took over producing that plant’s quota of 73 engines on top of their own. Hendy’s production of marine engines was an outstanding contribution to national defense, and they received the first U.S. Maritime Commission’s Gold Star Award in 1943. Along with engines, they manufactured ships’ line-shafting torpedo-tube mounts and rocket launchers.
After WWII, with no more need for war production, the company struggled and greatly reduced its workforce. Westinghouse purchased the plant in 1947 and continued the development and production of anti-aircraft guns for the Navy that Hendy had originally started. The wind tunnel compressors they built were important tools for aerodynamic research. Their special radio and optical telescope equipment extended the nation’s frontiers in space, and two Westinghouse coronagraphs (solar telescopes) are tracking and photographing the sun. Missile launching and handling systems for Polaris, Poseidon and Trident submarines for the U.S. Navy were contracted by their marine division.
The property of the former Hendy Iron Works has been occupied by Northrop Grumman Marine Systems since 1996.
Six of the original structures from 1906/07 remain on the site:
The administrative building (now the Iron Man Museum), the machine shop and assembly, store and compressor room, blacksmith and car shop, foundry, carpenter shop, and the 70-feet tall water tower. The 750-feet deep well supplied water not only for the plant, but for the young community as well, free of charge!
The original sheds on the property are all built in the same “basilica” style, with a 40 feet tall central “nave” and lower, narrower aisles, and rows of clerestory windows providing light. They are all constructed from heavy timber, because it is slower to burn than steel and was thus preferred as building material. The original foundry from 1906 has a raised, gabled vent along the roofline with increased roof height over the eastern aisle, where two interior cupolas were located. Several additions were made to the structure, including an annex with a breezeway allowing locomotive cranes and cars to run through the building. It stayed in continuous use as a foundry until 1943, and after a brief hiatus, again from 1944 on. Cupolas and foundry platform were removed in 1949, and the building was later used for receiving and shipping.
The “human scale” buildings along Hendy Avenue are all wood-framed and stuccoed, providing space for the main office and houses for pumps and electrical equipment. The structure containing the museum today is the most prominent and sits on the north side of the train tracks on Hendy Avenue. Built in the distinct Mission Revival style, it boasts an elaborately modeled pediment and small dome with a cupola over the entrance. An open arcade connecting the parapets along the façade was later enclosed. This is the only one of the original buildings that is included in the 1979 Inventory of Cultural Resources and is listed as a Heritage Landmark of the City of Sunnyvale. However, the whole plant was designated a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1978. It is the thirty-second such landmark since the program began in 1973.
The Iron Man Museum is open by appointment only to citizens of the U.S.
Application for Heritage Landmark Designation, and Buildings’ Survey by Nancy Stoltz for the City of Sunnyvale, from the SHS archives
Images – Sunnyvale’s Heritage Resources, California History Center, De Anza College
The Joshua Hendy Iron Works 1906 – 1946 Sunnyvale, California, by The American Society of Mechanical Engineers
By Katharina Woodman