THIS IS A RE-POST OF A PODCAST INTERVIEW WE ORIGINALLY POSTED February 2019:
Susan Dippre from Susan Dippre Designs joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss how working at Colonial Williamsburg combined her love of history and landscaping. She has recently begun her own company to provide the general public with Williamsburg inspired designs from natural materials.
Susan Dippre began her career in Colonial Williamsburg’s gardens in April of 1980. Her first assignment as a Gardener was at Carter’s Grove Plantation, at it’s beautiful location on the James River. She assisted with the holiday decorations there and fell in love with the beauty and creativity.
In 1990 she was promoted to Foreman, responsible for the maintenance of the gardens and grounds at the Williamsburg Inn and Lodge, and later, Merchant Square. During this time she renovated the rooftop garden at the DeWitt Wallace Museum.
She became a Supervisor in the Historic Area in 1995; inheriting the responisiblity of decorating the whole area for the holidays. She, with the assistance of a dozen Gardeners and a half dozen Carpenters, were decorating well over 100 buildings in the Historic Area, Merchant Square, and a majority of the Hotel Holiday decorations, including all interior and exterior trees and the front of the Williamsburg Inn, streets, and parking lots for over 20 years.
The favorite parts of her job were the demonstrations and workshops also working with all the designers to create the beautiful and original designs that graces the many buildings throughout. Recently she has begun a business so she can continue the design processes throughout the year.
UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES – On this 4th Tuesday of the month, we focus on another historical feature designed for form and function. It provided light, air circulation, and sometimes identifying information for homeowners and businesses, while also maintaining security. This month’s feature is: TRANSOM WINDOWS.
What is a transom window?
According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, a transom window is:
“A window above a door or other window built on and commonly hinged to a transom.”
These windows initially enjoyed popularity in the gothic period of the 14th century in Europe, and really became popular in the 18th century during the Georgian architectural period. Some authors suggest that the fanlight transom design that was so popular during the Georgian period came about as a natural aesthetic extension of Palladian designs, which tended toward arched windows. Stained glass was traditionally used in church transom windows and later used in private homes in the Victorian era and subsequent design periods. These windows provided more than visual enjoyment, as they also served practical purposes. Some buildings utilized transoms as the location of a painted or stained glass address number or location of the owner’s or building’s name. In buildings without electricity or fewer windows (like row homes), they provided extra light. Both exterior and interior transoms also allowed for increased air circulation. And because of their locations high above doors, these benefits were afforded without sacrificing privacy and security. Transoms were so ubiquitous in use that their open state in publishers’ offices theoretically allowed aspiring authors to pass on their unsolicited, amateur work directly to the publisher by throwing them through the opening. This led to an idiom used in analogous situations, as follows:
“It came in over the transom.”
Examples of Transom Windows:
A lovely stained glass transom window from St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Lowell, MA has an even lovelier message behind it – click here to learn more about its meaning and gain a stunning illuminated view of the window. The church was built in the Gothic Revival architectural style between 1824 and 1825.
In striking juxtaposition to the purpose behind the previous image, here is a beautiful example of a personalized transom window from the former Storyville Madam Lulu White’s address, a vestige of the long-gone structure, Mahogany Hall; it was built sometime between 1897 and 1917 during Storyville’s heyday, and demolished in 1949.
Image source: Infrogmation of New Orleans, Storyville exhibit, Historic New Orleans Collection – Lulu White Transom, CC BY 2.0.
Stained glass transom window (and sidelights) in foyer of the John L. Wisdom House, in Jackson, TN, built in the Queen Anne architectural style between 1880 and 1881.
The image above was taken by staff of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), in 1933. Image source: Library of Congress.
Transom fanlight window above door at the Chretien Point Plantation in Sunset, LA. Built in the Greek Revival architectural style in 1831.
The image above was taken by staff of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), in 1947. Image source: Library of Congress.
Transom Windows Today
Where to see them.
- Scavenger hunt – Hit the pavement in a historical neighborhood and spot as many transom windows as you can. Also look at historic churches.
- (Virtual) museum and other tours – Check out historical house museums in-person or virtually. Many Georgian style homes are guaranteed to have transoms in the form of fanlights. Victorian era and later homes may have stained glass transoms.
- Photo gallery – View transom window images on flickr here and here.
Where to get them (i.e., how to design or create one).
- Antique/Salvage Business – If your home is missing a transom window, consult resources in this article to create one if you have the space. Try to find salvaged or antique materials to be most accurate (and sustainable) – here is some inspiration.
- Restoration and Design tips – Find inspiration to restore your existing transoms here, here, and here.
For further resources and reading:
- For thorough information on window restoration in general, check out NPS guidelines for windows, here.
- Read more about the history of transom windows here and here.
Stay tuned each month for a new installment in this UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES! See last month’s post on “Haunted” Victorian Houses.
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DO YOU HAVE AN ORIGINAL OR MODERN TRANSOM WINDOW IN YOUR HOME?
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FALL MAINTENANCE FOR YOUR HISTORIC HOME – Fall is here. This brings Halloween fun, Thanksgiving, fall abundance, and cooler weather. It also signals the transition to winter and harsh conditions for our homes. We have often repeated, maintenance is essential for a home, especially an old or historical one. Read on for your fall maintenance checklist.
Take a walk around your property and determine what needs to be addressed. Here’s a list of common fall maintenance tips to get you started:
- Make exterior repairs.
- Look for general damage to your roof, siding, and foundation – schedule repairs before winter
- Inspect your roof. If you have a steep roof or a multistory house, avoid injury by using binoculars to inspect your roof. Common signs of damage to your roof include:
- Buckling, cracking, missing shingles – these should be replaced immediately
- Rust spots on flashing – remove rust, and if metal is worn through, paint with metal primer and metal paint
- Large amounts of moss or lichen – this likely indicates your roof is decaying underneath, so call a pro roofer to evaluate ($100-$200). You can also prevent this decay by laying a wood shingle roof on lathe rather than sheathing (modern approach) as air can circulate and dry out the wood
- Cracked or loose boot(s) (rubber collars that fit around plumbing vent stacks) – call a pro roofer to evaluate (they will charge $150-$300 to replace a boot)
- Schedule chimney cleaning and fireplace/heating system maintenance.
- Blockages in the chimney – cleaning the chimney (and furnace and boiler) are important safety precautions before turning on your heat
- Missing chimney cap – add one to prevent wildlife crawling down the chimney. You can find custom chimney caps at certain companies for non-standard sized chimneys
- Damper not working – look up into fireplace flue if the damper is not opening and closing, to see if there is an obstruction (you should be able to see daylight at the top of your chimney)
- Clean creosote buildup from your flue every other year – a professional chimney sweep will charge $300-$500
- Missing or cracked bricks in firebox – request a professional fireplace and chimney inspection if you see any damage (professional inspections run between $160-$500)
- Clean your gutters and downspouts. If you are not comfortable using a ladder, be sure to hire someone who can help with this important task.
- Clogged gutters may allow water to pool which can damage your roof or siding – remove leaves and debris
- Flush gutters with water, inspect joints, and tighten brackets if necessary
- Direct water drainage away from your foundation.
- Soil that is too flat near the foundation of the home may soak and cause leaks or cracks – make sure soil slopes away from the house at least 6 vertical inches over 10 feet to prevent this
- Check the foundation and entire exterior for cracks and gaps. Both animals and natural weather forces can enter and destroy your home. Loss of heat can also increase your heating costs.
- Cracks or unsealed areas – caulk around areas where masonry meets siding, pipes or wires enter the house, and around windows and doorframes. Do NOT use small cans of spray foam at wood contact areas – it will cause rot
- Conduct an energy audit.
- DIY – instructions can be found at energy.gov
- Professional – trained auditors can assess your current energy efficiency and provide a list of recommended improvements like upgrading to Energy Start appliances, adding insulation to your attic or adding more weather-stripping ***The caveat is you should pay for their service – otherwise their “solution” will be what they are selling, including replacement doors and windows which we do not generally advocate for older homes. Also make sure they are familiar with historic buildings and their unique concerns
- Increase warmth in your house.
- After you’ve installed storm windows and doors (and removed all screens) adding weather-stripping around windows and doorframes can not only keep your house warmer during the winter months, but also cut energy costs
- Drafty doors – place door sweeps at the base to keep the cold out and the heat in
- Shut off exterior faucets and store hoses inside.
- Shutting these off can protect pipes from freezing
- Drain hoses before storing indoors
- Check walkways, railings, stairs, and driveways for winter safety.
- Loose, slippery, or uneven surfaces – make sure to tighten loose railings, correct uneven walkways, and free drains of debris
- Check safety devices.
- Test smoke and carbon monoxide detectors – replace dead batteries
- Check the home for radon (you can find radon monitors here) – with cooler weather, windows are shut more and radon can become trapped inside the home – hire a professional to address radon issues
- Check expiration dates on all fire extinguishers – replace if expired
For further resources and reading:
Bruce Bomberger, Ph.D., archivist and librarian at the Lebanon County Historical Society in Lebanon (Lebanon County), PA, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss the Lebanon County Historical Society’s resources and services. We covered multiple topics, including:
- Bruce’s varied background in many areas of history, from archaeology to former curator of Landis Valley Museum
- The history of LCHS and historical societies in general – including their roots as fraternal organizations – and their varied roles in preservation of artifacts and buildings
- Unique aspects of the building itself and its relevance to Lebanon County history – from it’s origins as a private home, to holding some of the county’s earliest court cases, to functioning as the lodge for the local Loyal Order of Moose
- Special associations, including the society-owned Union Canal Tunnel, the oldest existing transportation tunnel in the United States
- Services and events open to the community, including Sunday lecture series (currently on-hold due to COVID), tours, and genealogical and archival research
- Challenges for LCHS and historical societies in general, including finite financial resources to sustain them, and limited space, as well as the ways which these issues are addressed
Contact Information – can be found at the bottom of this page
The society is open on a limited basis by appointment due to COVID (MASKS REQUIRED), for services such as genealogical and archival research, and tours – please email or call at the link listed above to schedule appointments in advance.
Consider supporting the society (or other historical societies) via donation, membership, ordering genealogical research services (which can be requested remotely), or taking a tour.
If you cannot visit the society, consider visiting the Union Canal Tunnel via either the South or North Park, and view the exterior of the reconstructed Krall Barn, a rare Pennsylvania German log barn originally from Schaefferstown (Lebanon County), PA. You can also read more about Lebanon History via Bruce’s recent interview with Lebtown, here.
ADDING ON TO A HISTORIC HOME – You’ve found your historic or old home. And it’s nearly perfect…..BUT, maybe it does not have enough room for you. Or maybe you need to make adjustments to age in place. Maybe you want to add a room on your first floor, or even expand a tiny historical kitchen. Most of us want to protect our old homes’ historic fabric. So…HOW do we do this sympathetically in a way that is not distasteful, intrusive, destructive, or irreparable? Because additions can change the historic character irrevocably, consideration of an addition is one NOT to be taken lightly.
Photo of a sympathetic addition on the rear of a 19th century home in eastern Lancaster County; work by Keperling Preservation Services.
WHAT ARE SYMPATHETIC ADDITIONS?
A sympathetic addition is a newly built addition to an old house or building that is harmonious with and corresponds to the original part of the home. These additions may be attached to the side, or include an extension from the roof. If following the general guidelines of the Secretary of the Interior for New Exterior Additions to Historic Buildings and NPS, the key is to preserve the historic character or fabric of the original building, particularly if that building is listed on the National Register. An easement would likely have stricter limitations and may even prevent an addition, particularly if the easement is written so that you must maintain the exterior as when the easement was granted. Although there is a shared feeling between old and new, NPS guidelines and standards indicate that the new addition should still be differentiated from the original. This differentiation may seem counterintuitive, but since additions fall under rehabilitation vs. restoration or preservation, and since NPS emphasizes protecting historical character, integrity and significance by making a visual distinction between old and new, there must be a difference so one can still identify what was newly added and what is original.
IS A SYMPATHETIC ADDITION NECESSARY?
Reasons NOT to add on. Some reasons not to add on include cost – sometimes an addition is so cost prohibitive it would be cheaper to move altogether! If you are not willing to move, you must consider other alternatives. Also, if you anticipate selling in the future, or even just want updates to essentially give you a return on investment if you do not plan to sell, you must consider market forces and make sure the change is worth the cost. Another reason not to add on is zoning restrictions. If you’re project plan cannot be adjusted to meet these, the restrictions will make the decision for you. You may also be restricted by National Register Status and an easement, as noted earlier.
Reasons to add on. NPS recommends that sympathetic additions only be completed if one has already considered (and ruled out) other options, including altering non-significant interior spaces. Although many homes before central heating and cooling were built with small interior rooms for efficiency, today we often prefer larger spaces to accommodate our lifestyles, and also because modern heating and cooling allows us to. However, smaller rooms can not only be charming, cozy, and private, but they also often contain much of the historic fabric – moulding, fireplaces, plaster ornamentation, pocket doors, built-ins, etc. – and destroying these distinctive irreplaceable features for the sake of a modern “open concept” trend is not advisable (in fact, if you insist on that, you probably need to buy a new, modern house instead and leave the old house to someone who will protect the historic integrity).
Even so, sometimes change is necessary. Maybe you have examined your interior spaces and realized there are not any non-significant ones. Or, if there are, even altering those will not suffice to meet your needs. In such cases, additions – even a small vestibule or other entry modification – may be required. Justifiable reasons for additions may include helping you age in place, meet code requirements (especially if the building is a business), or for general adaptive reuse, including expanding as you raise children and their needs change. It’s important to be able to enjoy the space you live in.
PLANNING YOUR SYMPATHETIC ADDITION
Zoning and Codes. One of the first things you should do is reach out to your local municipalities to find out what zoning restrictions exist. For instance, generally you cannot build all the way to lot lines, and sometimes there are height limits on projects. Knowing the lay of the legal land can save you a lot of time and money by preventing you starting something that you legally cannot finish. A design professional and/or contractor well-versed in historic buildings can also help with this.
Budget. As we’ve said before, planning ahead allows you time to save money for the project. Put money aside to save for a project as soon as you start seriously considering the project. Before consulting with professionals, make a list of your wants and needs, how you plan to use the space, and your ultimate goals so that you can prioritize what to pay for first. You should also have an estimate of the square footage. All of these will help contractors and other necessary specialists determine approximate cost. You should also determine which professionals and specialists you will need based on your lists.
Getting Help. Once you’ve determined that a sympathetic addition is appropriate, you can begin your plan. If it’s anything bigger than a dormer, you should definitely get the help of a professional contractor. If it is an intricate design, you should also consult with a design specialist or architect – most building permits for modifications require a design professional to essentially stamp/sign the drawings under the modern building code.
Design. As always, the emphasis of any update should include being as harmonious and unobtrusive to the original design as possible (with the least possible loss of or damage to historic, character-defining materials). Specifications are listed below (and NPS has more information):
- An addition should not be highly visible to the public, and is preferably placed at the rear of a building, or other “secondary elevation” (i.e., anything that is not part of the front façade and is not visible from the streetscape).
- If the addition does not fit the above conditions – for instance, a side addition – it is best to recess it a bit from the main structure, possibly using a breezeway to connect it.
- An addition’s color and content should be in keeping with the historic part, but not match it exactly (as discussed earlier about differentiating to distinguish the addition from the original building). This often contentious and confusing point has been debated, and is really a matter of personal judgment (outside of situations that are restricted by National Register status or easements). We recommend keeping the addition similar enough to the original building so as not to detract from the historic building (a standard that is decidedly different than is seen in many European cases, as can be viewed here and here).
- The addition’s size in relation to the original building should be smaller, with a lower roof and smaller overall footprint (an exception being a rear addition artfully designed to be unseen from the streetscape).
- Massing can be complicated to explain and understand, but it is essentially the perception of a building in shape (1 dimension perspective), form (3 dimensions), and size. Ingenious designs for additions may make them appear less significant than the original structure, while inside they may be superior in space and capacity.
- Rhythm in architecture refers to repetitive use of visual elements to establish a pattern. If the original structure has a rhythm including windows and doors with a decidedly vertical feel, this rhythm should be repeated in the addition as well.
For further resources and reading:
A few months ago I came across an article from DWM Magazine (DWM = Door and Window Market) about a lawsuit filed on Oklahoma against Pella Corp by a homeowner that alleged the Architect Series windows have design and manufacturing defects as result they are leaking and causing premature wood rot and damage. You can read the article here: https://www.dwmmag.com/lawsuit-alleges-pella-architect-series-windows-were-defective/
Replacement windows come in a wide range of options and price points – unfortunately paying more doesn’t always equal greater quality when choosing a replacement window (and if you have your original windows they most likely can be repaired and as energy efficient as replacement windows – science backs this.) You can read more here: http://practicalpreservationservices.com/put-replacement-windows-to-shame-what-that-nice-salesperson-doesnt-want-you-to-know/
Reading the article about the lawsuit against Pella I wasn’t surprised by the issue the homeowner had. They had purchased aluminum clad (wood wrapped in aluminum) ‘designed and manufactured to protect the wood’ and I’m sure they also tout the maintenance free aspect of the design. The complaint alleges, “[An] investigation revealed that the defendant’s Architect Series windows aluminum exterior cladding had design and manufacturing defects allowing rain water to drip in to the interior wood and that the rain water dripping in to the interior wood over the years resulted in rotted wood internal destruction of the windows.” This is a common issue when wrapping wood (I won’t even get into the fact that the pine they are using is inferior to old growth wood) and is one of the reasons the Secretary of the Interior advocates for NOT wrapping wood in metal or synthetic siding: https://www.nps.gov/tps/how-to-preserve/briefs/8-aluminum-vinyl-siding.htm
“Since aluminum and vinyl sidings are typically marketed as home improvement items, they are frequently applied to buildings in need of maintenance and repair. This can result in concealing problems which are the early warning signs of deterioration. Minor uncorrected problems can progress to the point where expensive, major repairs to the structure become necessary.
If there is a hidden source of water entry within the wall or leakage from the roof, the installation of any new siding will not solve problems of deterioration and rotting that are occurring within the wall. If deferred maintenance has allowed water to enter the wall through deteriorated gutters and downspouts, for example, the cosmetic surface application of siding will not arrest these problems. In fact, if the gutters and downspouts are not repaired, such problems may become exaggerated because water may be channeled behind the siding. In addition to drastically reducing the efficiency of most types of wall insulation, such excessive moisture levels within the wall can contribute to problems with interior finishes such as paints or wallpaper, causing peeling, blistering or staining of the finishes.”
Trapping the water behind the metal and against the wood is the same issue that is being alleged as a design fault in the Pella lawsuit. The lawsuit also alleges that the company had known this was a design defect since 2006 (there had been previous class action litigation). The complaint sums this up, “[Pella] breached its duty to disclose to plaintiff that its Architect Series windows had a substantial risk of leaking because of design and manufacturing defects and that the leakage would result in rotted wood and that after the purchase of the windows defendant breached its duty to inform plaintiff that defendant’s Architect Series windows had a very high likelihood of leaking that would result in rotted wood”.
As I stated previously I wasn’t surprised by the cladding causing wood rot and I do think a window manufacturer should understand this and design to avoid the condition, but most people move every 7 years and if the previous homeowner paid the expense of replacement windows when the windows begin to fail it is a ‘necessary’ cost of maintaining a home and the replacement cycle continues.
COFFEE BREAK RECAPS – Periodically, we will be bringing you recapitulations of our live “coffee break” videos, where Danielle and Jonathan address questions related to preservation and provide answers or brainstorm solutions. These recap posts will include additional information and resources. This month’s recap focuses on rising sea levels’ impacts on historic buildings and possible solutions. Watch below.
- Focus: The ever-increasing threat of flooding to historical buildings and properties caused by climate change (among other things) – after all, water is the enemy of historic structures
- Question: What can be done to protect historic buildings and districts – in a way that is also sensitive to preserving the historic-fabric – from rising sea levels?
- Solutions: Danielle and Jonathan discussed 3 possibilities:
- Make bottom levels of buildings “floodable” as is being attempted at the national level (see resources below for an example) – however, this still puts floors, doors, windows, trim, etc. at significant risk of damage and destruction.
- Consider elevating the building to a level high enough that it is less likely to need to be raised again, and treating the elevation similarly to a “sympathetic addition” – one that is new but whose style and materials are in keeping with the historic fabric of the rest of the building.
- Although relocation of the entire structure is also an option, it may be less desirable than the other options, as it is extremely costly and has other risks.
When it comes to flood mitigation in coastal or water-front communities, historic structures should not be forgotten
– DON’T THROW THE PROVERBIAL BABY OUT WITH THE BATHWATER.
- Our previous podcasts related to this topic, here (building elevation and relocation) and here (rising sea levels and general planning).
- The Secretary of the Interior’s Guidelines on Flood Adaptation for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings
- The Secretary of the Interior’s New Exterior Additions to Historic Buildings for information on sympathetic additions (if considering elevating your home as a “sympathetic addition”)
- The National Center for Preservation Technology and Training’s example of a wet-flood-proofed structure
- Our coffee break guest also mentioned Dominique Hawkins – founder of Preservation Design Partnership – who provides information and workshops on flood mitigation planning. Read some of her documents here and here
A few weeks ago an article was posted to the Preservation Professionals group on Facebook. You can read the article here: https://www.rewire.org/how-discussions-of-neighborhood-character-reinforce-structural-racism/. The article is an interesting discussion of how redevelopment can impact the the neighborhood qualities and characteristics especially in relation to affordable housing. The example used in the article is from St. Paul, Minnesota and the proposed development of a Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant (closed for over a decade). A developer purchased the site and proposed an adaptive reuse with 3,800 housing units of those 20% would be affordable housing. Based on these facts (as I know them) I do not think this is inconsistent with the neighborhood, it is preserving the buildings, and affordable housing is a problem in America that needs a solution. There are studies that mixed income neighborhoods are mutually beneficial (https://www.useful-community-development.org/mixed-income-housing.html). The neighbors lived near an operating auto manufacturer for many years and it do not have a negative impact on the property values and I would assume housing would be less disruptive than manufacturing to the surrounding area.
Locally there is a proposed redevelopment of a former hospital site in North West Lancaster (near Franklin and Marshall College). Reading the numbers of units the developer is proposing (a total of 245 units projected on the low end. With 120 as low-and-moderate income units) will significantly alter this neighborhood. I understand that the developer needs have a certain number of units to make the financials work for the project. Here’s a link to the article from LancasterOnline:
I agree that redeveloping the existing building is positive for the community. The proposed number of units is concerning to me from a streetscape standpoint. They are proposing, “Building 25 to 30 row homes for sale along West End Avenue between West Walnut Street and Marietta Avenue, restoring how the block looked before it became hospital parking.” I am sure there were never 25 to 30 row houses in one city block. There are traditional row houses in this neighborhood (along with larger single family homes – it was part of the first push to the suburbs from Lancaster City). The Sanborn Map below shows the neighborhood with the original hospital building (replaced in the 1960’s):
Squeezing 25 to 30 row house on to a single block will change the look of the neighborhood. The Secretary of Interior Standard #9 states, “New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features, and spatial relationships that characterize the property. The new work shall be differentiated from the old and compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment.” Any proposed new construction should be required to meet these standards.
There is not a one size fits all answer to development and preservation. I remind people that zoning and development decisions are made at the local level. If you want to help shape the development, demolition permission process, or the historic preservation protections you must get involved locally.