Windows and doors: soul of a building

Becoming the 5th owners of a nearly century-old house with a few years of neglect has been a blessing and a curse.  Nothing more exemplifies this dichotomy than the doors and windows of the house.

They are (okay, were) all original.  All 100% wood and glass.  All coated on the outside with chipping lead paint.  And all in various states of disrepair.

When you get into a situation like this, it is tempting to rip it all out and throw in the cheapest option.

But I truly feel like becoming the owner of a 90+ year old house is a commitment to its preservation.  I really believe that the concept that we should not invest in our own homes, that we should spend as little as possible, that we should only consider how to short change the next potential owner to maximize the return on our dollar rather than consider what is best for the house, for ourselves, is part of what got us into this housing market mess in the first place.  A house is a financial investment, and a big one at that, but should we really go about our lives thinking only of our immediate returns?  A house is so much more than that.  It is also a home.

All that, plus you know, I really hate vinyl.

Windows and doors, perhaps more than any other architectural feature, say a lot about a building.  You can tell so much about a house immediately simply by standing on the curb and examining the detailing and symmetry of the windows and doors.  Here is a website with lots of photos that explains it quite well.  Different historic periods had very specific ways of conveying the aesthetic of the day through the doors and windows.  On my morning commute through a few distinctive neighborhoods of DC, I love looking at the beautiful detailing and originality of the windows on the Victorian row houses.  And you can immediately tell when they’ve been replaced cheaply.  They simply don’t make ’em like they used to.  I mean, you’d never see a lovely stained glass transom light above the door of your average house built today.  People simply don’t build pretty things anymore.  They build cheap things.

Vinyl windows don’t have a very long lifespan.  They warp and generally need to be replaced after 20-30 years where they end up in a landfill.   They cannot be repaired.    They are quite ugly.  Their one claim to fame, their energy efficiency, is kind of diminished when you consider that they ultimately warp and bend out of shape.  And it is the opinion of many preservationists that a properly maintained, properly working wood window is not substantially less energy efficient than modern windows.

As for my improperly maintained wood windows?  I can attest that these are less energy efficient, ha.  But with adequate weatherstripping and those optically clear plastic sheets you hang over them with a hair dryer, you can gain a big improvement and reduce a lot of draftiness.

Here is one of the prettier casement windows in my house:.

Another one, plus a sleepy cat who thinks he’s now mantle decor?

Now, there are a few windows on the sides of the house, toward the rear, that we have absolutely replaced with cheap vinyl windows.  We also had the lead-painted trim wrapped in aluminum.  These were a little more urgent and a clear safety hazard (one was in our kitchen, one was preventing AC in our bedroom!).  And in the rear-side of a house, where it can’t be seen from the street, it’s not as critical to preserve its history.

But there are a few beautiful windows in the front that we so far just can’t bring ourselves to destroy.  And the door.  We NEEDED a new door!

Windows are very much one thing, but when you go through a doorway every day, it gets a lot of wear and tear.  I think if we really wanted to, we probably could have stripped and sanded and reglazed the glass on this door, but it was ultimately too much work for an old and flimsy door that really needed replacement.

Here it sits on our front porch waiting to be taken to Community Forklift where someone will hopefully upcycle it into something creative and pin it on pinterest.

It still even had the original doorknob with old-timey lever lock keyhole  (We switched out the knob with a cheap replacement as a temporary solution when it broke).

This historic door could not be replaced by just any door.  We wanted something that matched the historic feel and character of our home.

Our contractor and some of our friends/family were SHOCKED that we were not getting some sturdy, nondescript and cheap fiberglass door.  They also were taken aback by our choice of a door that had a similar lite (glass pane) pattern.  WON’T KIDS THROW ROCKS AT IT, BUGLERS BUST THROUGH IT, ETC ETC?! Um, well they haven’t in 90 years.  And if children really wanted to throw rocks at glass, everyone may as well get rid of their windows too.  Why is it so weird to have glass on a door these days?

Anyway.  We picked out a door from Simpson with traditional Arts & Crafts styling made of ash and stained.

If you would like a wood entry door, it is important that it is in a covered location and that you choose an appropriate species of wood.  It’s a good idea to have a storm door too.  That part is still on our To Do list.

But it’s a beautiful door, no?

We also ordered some period-appropriate hardware.

It is also incredibly sturdy, energy efficient, and should last this house at least another century.

Repairing the old windows is our next project.  Stay tuned!



3 thoughts on “Windows and doors: soul of a building

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