Did you know that historical wood windows are one of the most vulnerable and at-risk elements of our architectural heritage?
Preservation Virginia has proclaimed historical windows endangered, saying, “Historic wooden windows are destroyed daily in lieu of new, inferior windows. Salesman convince owners and architectural review boards members that replacement windows are superior to historic wooden windows when the truth is, these historic windows can last longer than any new wooden or vinyl-clad window.”
Despite this, windows don’t often have a high priority on the list of things we should preserve in our built history. Yet they should. If eyes are the windows into the soul, as the old adage goes, then surely windows are how we see into the soul of a historical building.
Windows are an important component in a historical building’s appearance. Not only are they one of the few parts of a building that serve as both an interior and exterior architectural feature, they usually make up about a quarter of the surface area of a historical building.
Many aspects of windows contribute to a building’s architectural style and historic fabric – height, width, and thickness of frames and sills, the visual design of sash components, the materials and color treatments used, and even the way light reflects off the glass.
Muntins, historical glass, putty beading, moulding profiles, glazed opening widths and regionally specific patterns and features are more distinct characteristics of original wood windows that contribute to a historical building’s façade. And all of these varied between architectural styles and periods and from region to region, making wood windows living artifacts from history – an archeological gold mine that helps us understand and document historical building practices and craftsmanship.
These features and variances can be difficult to duplicate with modern technology. Today’s manufacturing and installation process is significantly different than the process used hundreds of years ago. The characteristics imparted by modern machinery and installation techniques create an entirely different window than the traditional building materials created when the building was originally constructed. Such a loss of historical elements is a permanent scar on a historical building.
Replacing original wood windows also often requires changing the window’s rough opening to install a window manufactured on national standards to the non-standard opening of a building constructed during a time when there were no building standards – another mistake that permanently damages a building.
Throwing out the artifacts from our built history that stand testament to how buildings have been constructed over the last several hundred years prevents future generations from gaining a deep understanding of a piece of history that’s just as important as the knowledge we gain from all the other artifacts we work so hard to preserve.
Just as we shouldn’t replace our historical art with modern replicas, we shouldn’t replace our historical wood windows with modern replacement windows. Because once they are gone, they are gone for good.