How to Have a House

Living with and understanding a home.


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Antique windows really can’t be replaced.

I worked on houses for almost 19 years, I had some favorites.  Favorite houses, and favorite neighborhoods.  I had my favorite house pets, mostly cats, even though they were neurotic and not to be trusted. I had favorite driveways to back up, and, I had favorite jobs.  My all-time favorite work was repairing antique sash windows.  I don’t know why, they are difficult and moody, like favorite cats.  Windows seem simple, with only few major components. And every house full of windows had its own character and challenges.  

Antique windows are important.  Like trim and other decorative elements in the house, they represent the style and functionality of their time.  Windows built from 1900 to about the 1930s were the most common I worked on.  Craftsman style.  Usually one light (glass) in the bottom sash, and 2 to 8 lights in the top sash.  The stool was simple, as was the apron and casing.  Windows before 1900, victorian windows, are narrower, have fancier trim, and many operate staying open with spring bolts instead of ropes and weights. A double-hung window has two moving sashes, the top one comes down and the bottom sash rises. This was a function of cooling the room when they were installed, way before the age of air conditioning.  A couple of windows I repaired were round, with the bottom sash rotating like a pie piece.  Some windows had single sashes that dropped into the wall, disappearing.  These were common in washrooms built onto the back of the house.  They meant the wall space could be used for wash and rinse tubs, but air and light could come in above.  All kinds of things were different from manufacturer to manufacturer.  Some window units used pulley for the ropes while some used wood or glass grommets in the jamb.  There were windows with no weight access and some with weight access built-in. And of course, the access could have been one of several different designs, some of which didn’t work so great.  Some windows were bare-boned with nothing but wood components, while other sported tin sidetracks, and tin weather checks on the meeting rails.  The stop holding the sashes in usually matched the house, it may have been an ogee, a round bead, or even a simple round-over.  I always tried to preserve the stop.  By the time I got to the windows they had between 70-120 years of wear and tear on them.  This included a bunch of coats of paint, scuffed, damaged, or rotted wood, broken ropes, missing hardware, over applied caulk, and more.  Windows on back porches and second-floor sunrooms were often out of shape, thanks to the room settling away from the back of the house.  I’ve rebuilt a bunch of windows with trapezoid jambs.  

But the most important part of the windows is the history.  The clear representation of the time and age they were built and installed in.  Antique sash windows are some of the longest-lasting components in an antique house.  While old water heaters, coal-fired furnaces, and knob and tube wiring have likely been taken out and replaced, the windows remain.  Mostly.  Sadly, Americans are throwing windows into dumpsters at a rate that is basically unmeasured.  They are most commonly replaced with a vinyl unit, “replacement windows”.  Once this occurs, the original window is gone forever, and the vinyl unit will last just long enough to outlive the company that put it in.  10-15 years.  Then it’s done, again, vinyl is torn out and vinyl put in.  It’s like buying pretty trash that will work ok for about 10 years.  Those of us who love history, who visit museums to see the stuff, and who work hard to preserve it could lose our minds watching this.  But we have better things to do, mostly to preserve.  To somehow convince Americans, living in the biggest throw-away society on the planet, to keep something.  To keep a window that won’t even open anymore, and if it does, maybe not stay open on its own.  To keep windows full of nails, screws, and gadgets providing supposed security at night.  Windows marked with hammer and pry bars, and windows with separated joints and gapping glass.  Of course, we’re trying to preserve them.  Generations of families, kids, moms, dads, grandparents, have stood at those windows and gazed out.  They’ve watched snow fall, lightning strike, and wind blow.  They’ve watched kids play ball in the yard, ride bikes in the streets, and walk to the trolley to see a movie downtown.  These people have gazed out those windows while someone recently born slept in the room, and while another slipped away to the life beyond.  And all those years, and decades, the sun, moon, and cosmos have gazed back in.  Breezes have moved back curtains, and pies have cooled.  So the next time the local vinyl window company calls, ask yourself, why?  Why tear out the magic, the mystery, and the history.  Instead, consider having your antique windows repaired, preserved, and kept in their original state.  Remind yourself that as an owner of an American antique home you are in fact a steward of America’s history.  Plain and simple, in almost every room, even the basement, attic, and garage, your home holds the undeniable view of history, in simple, quiet form.  You will find great pride in keeping antique sash windows, and with them in their original home, with their original view, you too will be lucky enough to gaze through history, into the very present world around you.