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New Hope for Endangered Windows

Three preservation organizations recently proclaimed their states’ historic windows as endangered. Are these promotional efforts doing any good?

Maine Preservation announced its 2007 list of Maine ’s Most Endangered Historic Properties. Historic wooden windows are listed as a statewide thematic property type due to alarming destruction and replacement with aesthetically and environmentally inferior windows across Maine and nationwide.

“Historic wooden windows across Maine and nationwide are being replaced and destroyed at an alarming rate. Windows are key character defining features of historic buildings, yet many property owners elect to replace their historic windows unaware of the environmental, economic, historic and aesthetic impacts of their actions. Replacement windows seldom compare aesthetically or for cost/value to original windows. Historic wooden windows are simple to repair, and when properly maintained or restored will generally far outlast replacements. The reason: old growth lumber is much more durable than new growth lumber from which modern windows are constructed. Bottom line: maintaining and retaining historic wooden windows makes good “cents” and helps save the Earth.” – Maine Preservation

In a similar move Preservation Virginia places Historic Wooden Windows, Statewide on their Most Endangered list. “Historic wooden windows are destroyed daily in lieu of new, inferior windows. Salesmen convince owners and architectural review board members that replacement windows are superior to historic wooden windows when the truth is, in many cases, historic windows have lasted over 100 years. With some maintenance, these historic windows can be airtight, weather resistant, and can last another 100 years — longer than any new wooden window or vinyl clad window.” And, last year the Preservation League of New York State did the same.

Here in my office I get calls from homeowners and tradespeople who want to save their old wood windows. In past years I might get one call a month, but this spring and summer I’m getting a dozen calls a week. People are not only thinking about saving their windows, they are out there scraping paint and spreading putty.

What could be causing this surge in action? These promotional moves by the preservation organizations help spread the word, but I think there is a more fundamental movement afoot.

Some homeowners feel like they have been hoodwinked by the window replacement industry. Vinyl windows that were promised to be “forever” and “maintenance free” break down, fog up and fall apart after just five to ten years. Homeowners are getting over the embarrassment of their past poor decisions and neighbors are talking to each other, spreading the word that vinyl windows are not all they are cracked up to be.

Homeowners tell me they know something is wrong with ripping out all their old windows and throwing them away, but they don’t quite know what the alternative might be. They cannot fine tradespeople to do the work. Over the past decades the replacement industry has quietly eliminated the knowledgeable craftspeople who could help us take care of our fine old places, and substituted the sales and installation of products. What is the alternative? Wendy, a homeowner in New Orleans recovering from Katrina, knows. She confides, “It makes my heart JOLT when I see my neighbor’s nice windows replaced with plastic. I know that’s not going to happen to mine, NO WAY. I’m keeping my windows and will be doing the new putty and paint myself.”

Dana, a do-it-yourselfer Worcester , MA , had all vinyl replacement windows in his fine old four-square home. When a “sister house” in his neighborhood faced the mis-fortune of window replacement, he latched onto all the old sash, which fit right into his window frames. He fixed up each sash, then gleefully ripped out the vinyl windows and installed the fine old sash. His wife just loves to look out through that nice old wavy glass. Dana reports, “I just wanted to let you know that I’ve finally finished restoring all the windows in our house in Worcester , MA . I even learned how to build a frame for one of the windows, with weight pockets, pulleys, and parting beads. A previous owner had put in a door where a window originally was, so my wife and I are especially thrilled to have it back the way it was when the house was first built. It’s been a great learning experience for us, and makes us appreciate our old home even more now. Now it’s on to freeing the house from it’s vinyl siding straight jacket. Yahoo !!!!!”

If you are not a do-it-yourselfer don’t worry. More and more savvy tradespeople are recognizing this new market for traditional window maintenance and repair services. I personally know of twenty-one new startup companies or tradespeople who are shifting over to full time window work. They are even organizing. The Northeast Window Restoration Alliance members are experts in window restoration and preservation. They blend traditional and modern materials and techniques to maintain the window’s original practical function and architectural design.

So, there is hope for you and your fine old windows. If you want to do it yourself, there are training manuals and workshops to help you learn. If you are not inclined to do it yourself, search for those knowledgeable craftspeople who will help.

Resources:

Northeast Window Restoration Alliance
www.WindowRestorationNE.org

Save Your Wood Windows
Fifteen specific step-by-step treatments to repair weathered sills and deteriorating sash, includes a directory of window specialists. 59 pages, 119 illustrations, $15. Available at www.HistoricHomeWorks.com or call 207 773-2306.

Windows on Preservation
This booklet includes a description of window making and development of woodworking machinery through the 19th century. And a homeowners guide to restoring historic windows. Published by American Precision Museum , Windsor , VT, 76 pgs. $12.00. Phone to order: (802) 674-5781

Workshops and Training
www.HistoricHomeworks.com

John Leeke is a preservation consultant who helps homeowners, contractors and architects understand and maintain their historic buildings. You can contact him at 26 Higgins St., Portland, Maine, 04103; or by E-mail: johnleeke@HistoricHomeWorks.com; or log onto his website at: www.HistoricHomeWorks.com

© John Leeke