Historic Windows… let’s argue
Portland Maine: the land of Historic buildings and Historic ideologies, and Historic Windows.
Today’s epic battle with the Historic preservation committee is over compliance with their maddening window replacement policy. As most of the country tightens down and gets tought on energy lost and inefficiencies in housing, Portland, Maine’s Historic preservation folks throw a monkey wrench at the designer and builder by mandating in-efficiency and gentrification. Let me explain.
67 Gray street, a 170 year old two story New Englander that is located in a historic district that according to the liaison for the committee, is a historic working class neighborhood. This building, as said in past post, has seen so little maintenance over the years that it still has its original windows and has never been insulated. 14 windows- all double hung with 6×6 pane sashes, all most likely the originals. They too have never been maintained and are truly ugly, dangerous, and inefficient air ducts to the inside. Guillotines is the name that the notable architect Frank Lloyd Wright gave double hung windows, due to their uncanny way of just about taking your arm off while trying to open the storm windows. He never put a double hung window in one of his homes.
When Jon and I met with Deb the first time we were quickly told that we would have to save the existing window configuration because, as she hands us a 1925 picture of the building it shows 6×6 pane sashes. Now first of all I have a problem with this logic…. this photo was taken only 84 years ago rather than 170… what happened prior to 1925 no one knows…. so the history is incomplete but we must follow this photo. Jon and I noted while looking at the photo that this house looked still quite new at the time, no asphalt siding yet. And with this Jon mentioned to Deb that he was looking to make this building a viable home again meaning bringing it up to standards of the 2000s, new heating, new insulation, tear down the gross asphalt siding, and rebuild the front steps as they were in the photo. And with that said you would think that the Historic folks would be happy that this building fell in the right hands. One would think that they would make certain exceptions to their rules due to the massive financial and physically laborious undertaking that Jon has taken on in well intention. For example couldn’t they be double hungs that are the same size minus the fake grills of the modern day double thermal pane double hung.
The answer is no….no…no…there are no exceptions to the rules when it comes to changing the appearance of the windows. According to Debbie these 6×6 muntin sashes are historically important as they represent the ‘working class’ of the time….was it 1925 that she spoke or 86 years prior to that? We could not conclude due to incomplete photographic evidence. At this point of the discussion Jon and I were awakened to Historicisms abstractness, it’s interest in minutia, and lack of understanding as to what a window represents as a technology. Debbie with a smile suggested that we save the existing windows, that they come apart into pieces that can be replaced, fixed, re-puttied, painted. She noted that we could take place at a ‘fix your window day’. Now I began to get a bit impatient with her at this point I know when a window is rotted right through and un-fixable…and these sacred artifacts were just that. So I mentioned this to her and she kind of glazed over. She said that there where a half dozen window companies that ‘they have approved windows from’ and that if we were to replace these windows frame and all which she did not prefer that they would have to be made from wood, that they would have to have grills on the outside and the inside and preferably true divided lites…no vinyl windows allowed!’ and that concluded our first visit. Jon and I went off to see what was up in the world of window representatives.
Well what we found out very quickly on talking to other contractors, window representatives, and historic home owners is that these True divided lites or TDL are ‘EXPENSIVE!’ Every window salesman we talked to when they heard we were remodeling in a Historic district said “get ready to pay twice as much”. These window folks mostly were instantly sympathetic, and looked at us with sorrow. From here Jon and I knew this part of the budget was going to go through the roof and that the window budget was going far away from ‘working class ‘ and you know this because the window models approved are in the category ‘architectural’ or that they are called things like, Platinum line, or gold line, or premium, or ‘expensive’ in a nut shell. Quickly we began questioning the system…’preserving historic working class’ by mandating the most expensive windows. Hum? How does this work? Is it that the Historic folks would rather you keep leaky old originals in?Or is it that they only want wealthy folks to have new windows? Or is it that windows come before people, warmth, sanity. Some how ideologies preside over the rational realities of our post peak oil time.
Having done this research we went back in to see Debs thinking maybe we could some how show her we had done our homework. On the second meeting we met her in the hall and she began dialogue there…and almost instantly there was arguing and we were quickly ushered into the catacombs of the Historic department. Jon was as he said the good guy, patient, quiet, listening. Me … I was the bad guy, loud, challenging, disgusted, and in general not in such as nice of a mood as previously. The way the historic folks work on you is to quickly establish a mood of “we know more about historic windows than you”. They do this by finding your academically incorrect vocabulary usage. For example I used the word mullion to describe the grills….Deb corrected, “muntins”, mullions are the verticals divisions in a transom window”. In any case I don’t care what you call them, they’re fake. There is no reason to have them in a modern technological window, they’re there just to simulate the old 6×6 sash, they are not structural, they hold no use other than to appease historic committees and cost a lot. On saying this to Debbie she quickly put up the bureaucratic wall, “Sir, I am not here to debate it with you, you will have to take this up with the committee.” The committee meets once a month, and with the windows once ordered another month for them to come…I begin envisioning installing these things in the driving November rains.
I try several more times to explain technology of windows to her, that the reason 6×6 sashes were made had to do with glass making. In the age this building was built the ability to make glass bigger than 1′ x1′ was not readily available and if it was these panes were expensive. This can be seen when walking the neighborhoods on the Western Prom, the wealthy old homes often had picture windows (a large piece of glass) with designed muntins around the perimeter. These windows had internal ballasts or weights to allow the operator to open the window just the right amount. These were the ‘Architectural’ window of the time and expensive. Now if you walk into a “working class” neighborhood you will see either double hung windows with one muntin in the middle….this has to do with the age of the window. These windows were the later technology to the 6×6, glass companies were able to produce larger glass (Who wouldn’t want more light in, or to see better out? Evidently not historicists). Or you will see windows like 67 Gray street. 67 Gray street was old enough that the cheap “contractor model” of the time were the 6×6 configuration in double hung sashes, and the frame and sill were built on site. These windows for the time were the cheapest, no ballasts, no frills, and a junky lock system that almost always is broken or jambed. These windows operated with notches that held the window up…dangerous if you ask me, guillotine is right!
Back to arguing with Deb. When we argued that by asking us to install expensive simulations of a “cheap contractor model window of the time” was in a sense “gentrifying this “working class neighborhood” and in essence wiping out historic importance of having working class neighborhood in a city or town. Is this not the real discussion as far a historic importance of maintaining such neighborhoods, and Not the simulation of old, out of date technologies?
To argue further Jon asked Debbie why Aluminum storm windows are acceptable when they are a technology not of that time, and that they are on the outside and what you really see? To me this is the core of the Hypocrisies. The Historic folks allow storm windows that are modern, they replicate nothing, they look like a cover up and that is what they are. The storm window is important because it actually creates some sort of seal to prevent air infiltration, for the old double hungs really have no seal. If they want to mandate such minutia as the 6×6 muntin sash why don’t they mandate that old homes must have the historically accurate “shutters” of the time?
So with all the cash that Jon will have to dump into the new heating system, modern plumbing, new electrical system, new insulation, demolition and rebuild of failing plaster and lathe, etc, etc he now is burdened with installing windows that cost 2x what a reasonable double hung with no muntins would cost….seems unfair, unjust, and to me stupid.
Monday morning, and Debbie sends her “second” man out to survey the situation. I was not at this meeting and thankfully. From what Jon said, this guy sees everything old as “precious”. Evidently he said that Jon would need to replace first, second, and third story windows with “wood” windows. He gave Jon the address of a home that was being retrofit with such a window or “trimline” as he called it. So we go and take a look. What do we find? We find what looks like a aluminum clad window, they look alright but they were not “wood”. The Historical folks like to argue and greenly so that wood is a renewable resource, and that it makes for easily maintenance. Well A. they are not wood.(they were fooled by the window company) B. wood windows are not easy to maintain…these aluminum clad windows strive to be maintenance free. C. if they were wood, most wood windows today are made from sap wood or quick growth lumber, not old growth. If you want a window made out of old growth, which is rather non sustainable, you would have to pay an arm and a leg for it. In any case these windows he sent us to look at are expensive and not representative of “working class”. Hell if you want to get down to it a working class window of today would be a vinyl window….egads!
On maintenance..if a regular maintenance schedule is followed these old windows last much longer than a modern vinyl window. Lets take a look at 67 Gray street, sure doesn’t look like anyone painted the second and third story windows for decades. Why? Too hard to reach, too much of a pain to remove the sashes, etc,etc. On could argue too …what sort of working class homeowner wants to come home after a 40+ hour week to scrape paint, putty, and paint a window on the second floor off a ladder? I don’t know of such a person who wouldn’t gripe and groan. Lets face it maintenance is for the wealthy…they pay someone to do the job, hell they wouldn’t have a clue at how to take apart this so called maintainable technology unless they’re friends with a Historicist.
So in the end what’s going to happen? We still do not know. Time tics along and we need affordable solutions not ideologies to fix “This old House”! Next blog on this home here