Then and Now: Keep looking through your old windows

Original windows in old homes can add to the charm and character of a house.

By RANDY FLETCHER — The world can tell a lot about your home by its windows. They are an important element of the overall charm of a house, giving it character, appeal and architectural integrity. Windows are often the first feature of your home that visitors or passersby notice. Whether it’s the wavy glass reflecting the sparkling morning sunlight or the warm light of a reading lamp glowing through glass as dusk approaches, windows are truly the eyes into the soul of a house.

It was the row of 10-foot tall windows that first attracted me to our house. After 11 years, I still love these gorgeous old windows — their wavy glass alters my view to the outside, giving everything a dream-like quality. The wood muntins separating the glass were milled with simple profiles and have a pleasing look. The craftsmanship and detail of these windows are a bittersweet legacy of the past.

We moved into this house in April of 2007. Though that winter was basically behind us, there was still a bone chill outside — and inside the house.

“If eyes are the windows to our souls,

then windows are the eyes into the soul of a house.”

—Rose Tarlow, antiquaire and designer

One evening, as we sat in the living room, I saw papers moving, with no apparent cause, across the coffee table. I knew it had to be a serious draft — or was it a ghost? I thought, “What the heck is going on?” The windows were shut. The fireplaces were sealed tight. My wife, of course, couldn’t feel the draft. She was wrapped in a wooly blanket, with only her eyes and nose showing.

It quickly became apparent that I needed to find the source of this ghastly draft and put an end to it. My quest to find the draft was assisted by a faint rattling noise coming from a living room window, where I found a piece of glass the size of a dime hanging from the corner of a glass panel in the lower sash, along with several cracks in the upper sash.

I started making calls and doing research online about old wood windows. I found a cache of informative documents that help guide owners of older homes through the process of restoring and preserving them, including the Preservation Briefs from the U.S. Department of the Interior. It quickly became apparent that in my case, replacement windows were out of the question. There was no rotted wood on the windows and no missing pieces, except for a few corners of glass. The glazing needed to be redone, but they were in pretty good shape and just needed a little TLC to make them airtight.  

Fixing the window was pretty easy; we simply replaced a few panes of glass. I found a company in New Jersey that makes mouth blown restoration glass that matches the other panes. Not cheap, but well worth the money.

Old windows were built to last. They were designed when families planned to live in a house for generations. Properly cared for, these windows can last indefinitely. Old-growth lumber was most often used and is more rot resistant than today’s lumber.

Most modern windows such as vinyl, double-paned, triple-paned or argon filled, are promoted as the solution to a drafty old house. These new windows are efficient, but not built to last. They come preassembled as a single unit, which means that if part of the window fails, the entire unit must be replaced. Fortunately, old windows were crafted from individual parts which can be repaired or replaced as needed.

I learned that antique windows — properly maintained, weather-stripped and with added interior or exterior storm windows — can be just as energy efficient as new ones. Interior storm windows improve airtightness and comfort, reduce ambient noise infiltration and do not affect the aesthetics of the home. So far, we have five of them, only 32 more to go. In this old house, energy efficiency is a work in progress.

The value of a historic home lies in its historic features. Removing your home’s original windows may destroy much of its character. Rather than ripping out your old windows, do what you can to repair them and bring them back to their former glory. It’s a labor of love, but well worth the time, money and effort. Yes, windows are the eyes into the soul of your home, so please take care of them and enjoy the view.

The Hyattsville Preservation Association (HPA) seeks to engage residents in the preservation and promotion of the many historic homes and buildings in our city. www.preservehyattsville.org

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