Jennie Dotts, a real estate agent and preservationist, was driving along Stuart Avenue in Richmond’s Museum District recently when she spotted stacks of wavy-glass windows on the sidewalk.
“They were wonderful windows in front of a perfectly lovely 1920s home,” Dotts recalled.
She pulled over and asked what was going on. “We’re replacing these drafty, old windows,” a worker told her.
“It made me heartsick,” Dotts said. “The windows were a character- defining feature of the house.”
Old windows can break, leak and test a homeowner’s patience when they get stuck, Dotts said. But they can be repaired. “Replacement windows, on the other hand, can never be repaired,” Dotts said. “They can only be replaced.”
The window industry has convinced many homeowners that the best way to make their houses more energy-efficient is to replace well-crafted, original wood windows with inferior vinyl products, said Dotts, an agent with Virginia Properties, a Long & Foster Co.
Once repaired or fully restored, vintage windows can be combined with low-profile storm windows to preserve them for the next 100-plus years and make them as energy-efficient as most new windows, restoration experts say.
A simple repair, such as installing new rope in a window that uses a pulley system, would be about $100, said Dixon Kerr, a full-time window restorer and business partner with Dotts at Old House Authority, a window restoration business in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood.
However, a full restoration that includes stripping by steam and by hand 10 to 20 layers of paint, taking out all the glass, repairing/replacing glass, reglazing, fixing rotted wood and joints along with the window frame and a box for a pulley system could be as much as $1,500 for each window.
Early window casings were made of old growth wood, such as long-leaf pine or cypress that was 100 to 200 years old when harvested. The wood, unlike new growth wood used today, is insect- and water-resistant, hence its longevity.
Old growth wood can carry the weight of glass in a way that new, soft wood cannot, which allowed craftsmen to make thinner, more delicate and attractive muntins (supporting strips between panes).
“I never fail to learn something new from an old house,” Kerr said.
Vintage windows have many fine details, including the special qualities of antique glass, metal parts (locks, pulleys and finger pulls), elegant joinery (mortise and tenon, dovetails) and quirk beads (raised wood between panes) with delicate profiles (frames), Kerr said.
“Antique glass is highly prized by vintage homeowners who wish to restore their houses to their original character,” he said.
Once people develop an appreciation for vintage windows, the elegance and craftsmanship speak for themselves, said Kerr, who keeps a stash of discarded windows at his workshop as replacement parts for repairs and restorations.
Kerr restored three windows a few months ago for Rick Nathan, who owns an eclectic Colonial Revival house built in 1909 on Grove Avenue in Richmond’s Fan District. The street-facing, second-floor windows — with plain bottom sashes and ornate upper sashes — were in rough shape, Nathan said.
The upper sashes, with multiple diamond- and cathedral-shaped panes, had deteriorated with peeling paint, missing glazing and cracked panes.
“They were functional, but the top had been screwed shut,” Nathan said. “I considered replacing them but decided to restore them because of their design.”
The cost was $1,200 each. “Given the amount of labor and skill — not many people do this type of work — that was underpriced,” Nathan said.
“If I had replaced those windows, I would have saved a lot of money, but I would have abandoned the architectural design. When you have a house like this, you are as much a steward as you are an owner.”
The quality of old windows far surpasses what is made today, Dotts said. But it goes deeper than that, she said. “When you throw away these old windows in the Museum and Fan districts, you tear out the history.”
With a little repair and frame tightening, many windows can be saved, she said. Homeowners can spend less money by putting up storm windows and retaining the historic fabric than by installing replacement windows, Dotts said.
She said she worries about flippers and others who strip historic features, add what she calls “eye candy” like granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances, while sacrificing irreplaceable charm and character of these old houses.
Richmond is home to an abundance of vintage architectural styles from Greek Revival (circa 1820s-1860) and Italianate (1840-1885) to Georgian, Queen Anne, Federal Beaux Arts and Arts and Craft.
The architecture was influenced in part by the evolution of glass making in England and the U.S., restoration experts say.
The earliest windows are made of crown glass, which was blown onto a crown or hollow globe, flattened and then spun into a flat disk. Even though extremely thin, the glass was durable and many lights — as the glass is called — survive.
The thinnest glass was at the edge of the disk, while the glass at the center was thicker and more opaque.
Crown glass was one of the most common processes for making window glass until the 19th century.
Cylinder glass, which came later in the 1800s, was blown into the shape of a large sphere, slit open and reheated to lay flat. Pieces of cylinder glass could be made larger than crown glass.
As glass become larger, double-hung windows (in which top and bottom sashes slide up and down) became larger. Instead of 6-by-8-inches or 8-by-10-inches, panes measured 10-by-12-inches or 12-by-14-inches — changing the way houses were designed, allowing for bigger windows, larger rooms and taller ceilings.
Both types of hand-blown glass have imperfections — randomly spaced bubbles, thickness and ripples that distort the view when looking through the window, hence the term “wavy glass.”
At his home in Church Hill, Walter Dotts — husband to Jennie Dotts and a partner at Old House Authority — shows how original glass in the 1800-1820 part of the house is smaller than larger panes in an 1870s addition.
“This window is made like a piece of fine furniture,” he said, pointing to a vintage window. “Homebuilders paid a lot of attention to the windows because they were the portals for light and air. They were made to last 200 or more years.”
The original house was two rooms over two rooms with a center hall, facing North 28th Street. After the Civil War, the owners built an Italianate addition facing East Broad Street. The addition was expanded again in 1880. The house combines Federal and Greek Revival elements.
“There is always a dissonance in terms of modern living in an old house,” Walter Dotts said. “Old windows — like old houses — were built for the ages, not the moment.”
“Windows are considered primary architectural features,” said Matt Elmes, who served for 12 years on the Commission of Architectural Review in Richmond.
“We would never recommend replacing windows, unless we did a window-to-window survey and received an explanation about why each window was damaged beyond repair,” Elmes said.
Replacement windows do not assure energy efficiency, which can be achieved by installing high-quality storm windows — flush-mounted, not triple tracked like the storm windows of the 1960s, said Elmes, who owns Atlantic Crest Co. in Church Hill, a contracting company that specializes in old house renovation projects.
The cost of a storm window is similar in cost to a low-end vinyl replacement window — $200 to $250 each, depending on the size, he said.
Guidelines for the Commission of Architectural Review are the same as those used by the Department of the Interior to grant historic tax credits, Elmes said.
“It’s definitely frowned upon to remove any architecturally defining elements, and that includes porches, doors and cornices along with windows.”
Elmes said he can spot replacement windows from blocks away. “Dimensionally, they are not the same and you can see the vinyl tracks.”