Monthly Archives: March 2014

Addressing Windows

“The eyes are the window to the soul” — old English proverb

by Richard T. Reep, AIA, LEED-AP

Winding down the bumpety brick streets of old Winter Park is a voyage through time, where historic brick and wood frame homes from the city’s early days coexist with opulent mansions built more recently.  And while it’s not unusual to see two homes, side by side, built in the same architectural style but 80 years apart, it’s usually easy to tell the old from the new–but why?  What makes a new home look new, and an old home look old, is a fascinating journey through lifestyle changes and construction techniques, and once you begin on this journey, you start to appreciate and love the older homes more and more, and crave their simplicity of taste.  One of the easiest ways to see the story of a house is in its windows, and after looking closely at older homes’ windows, you will never see a new home in the same light again.

As stated in a previous essay, the difference between newer structures and older ones is the way the home expresses the act of dwelling. It is a home’s myriad little details–its accretions and additions over time, its way of settling into its landscape—that show us how humans come together and dwell.  Particularly expressive are a house’s windows and doors, which define the special relationship between the interior of the house and what lies outside.  Windows personalize a home, give it character, and act as the unofficial “eyes” of the owner.windows4

In Winter Park’s earliest days, the 1880s, windows were often milled on site using wood available from upriver in Georgia or other places easily accessible by train or by boat.  Windows were frequently custom-sized, many of them odd dimensions with trim or detailing that reflected the habits and skills of the craftsmen who made them.  As such, windows became little showpieces, where joinery and tight-fitting material were key aspects; they were sized in proportion to their walls.

windows5The windows were carefully fitted together and operated by crank handles (casement) or, if they were wood, were double-hung. These were early machines put in houses. The tops slid down on pulleys, with ropes tied to counterweights in the window jambs, letting the rising hot air out of the room.  Or, the bottoms slide open, so a pie could cool on the window sill or a breeze could blow through.

In older masonry homes, like Casa Feliz, the window is set back from the face of the wall.  You see the ends of the bricks lined up at the window jamb; the brick arches over the top carrying the weight of the wall over the opening.  These are craftsman details, and were done with great care, because the window’s job – to let sunlight in, and to provide a view out – competed with the wall’s job, which was to hold the house up and to keep water out.  The window is where all this comes together.

In a wood home, like many old bungalows around town, the wall isn’t as thick as in a masonry home, but the windows are similarly set back.  The shadow line was just enough to help cut the heat from the house, and windows also had many accoutrements – awnings, shutters, and other shade devices to keep the sun out.  Today’s homes have few, if any of these accoutrements, and the windows seem to be stretched tightly across the skin of the house.  They are not set back at all, even a little bit!  You can easily tell a newer home by this detail.

Older windows had much smaller panes of glass, while newer windows – mass produced, shrinkwrapped, and shipped – have much larger panes of glass.  And the whole idea of an operable window seems to have vanished, with many new homes having windows that don’t open at all.  Gone with the casements and sliding mechanisms are the trim pieces that framed the window, giving it importance and place.  If a stucco crew has the time, they may add a thickened band around the window, as a nod to the craftsmen of old.  This just makes a window look cheap, and it looks even cheaper when tiny, thin strips of metal are glued onto the glass.  These faux window muntins read as ‘cartoonish,’ not ‘historic.windows2

Windows flush with the skin of the wall, huge panes of glass that are never opened, unshaded and unprotected from the elements, mere voids…any or all of these characteristics are clues to the age of a home, and the more of this, the less the house says “dwelling”.  If you have an eye for historical architecture, these are painful to see, even if they serve their function.  While old windows universally express view through their details, these new windows can express a certain blindness to craftsmanship and quality.

Building techniques have changed, forcing windows into modular dimensions and having simpler mechanisms.  Often the frames themselves are now made out of vinyl, a triumph of petrochemical engineering.  And they are forced out to the very outside face of the house, so they can be put on in a certain sequence with waterproofing.

Most of all, windows have been freed from their ventilatory functions by air conditioning; so in the eyes of the modern builder, the simpler to operate, and the cheaper to install, the better.  The sum of all this is a fundamental change in our lifestyle; we live in tight, climate-controlled boxes, demanding million-dollar views, but not participating in the civic realm that allows these great views to occur.

This would all be fine, if windows were truly liberated from the drudgery of counterweights, the small glassmakers’ furnaces, rust and rot and all their old ills.  If, once freed from these constraints, windows became more beautiful, and more integrated into their homes, then all of these changes would be blessings.  But, alas, they too often fail to provide any sense of dwelling at all, and instead they bring a new home down.  On big homes, windows are too often a place to save money; and they diminish a structure’s design and its taste.

windows3So, if you are cruising Winter Park and looking at newer homes, learn from the old homes what a window really is.  If you are a homeowner contemplating windows, insist upon windows that are sized in proportion to the overall design of the house, not just the view that you might want to show off.  Insist upon windows that are manufactured with some quality to them, that fit into the wall, not just mount on the face like a band-aid.  Insist that the craftsmen who finish the wall around the window do so with thought about how to protect the opening – shutters, a lintel, or trim that has meaning and design to it, not just another empty stucco band.  And let your window itself join the respectable collection of many windows here in historic Winter Park, where you have chosen to dwell.

Richard Reep is a board member of the Friends of Casa Feliz, the President of the Orlando Foundation for Architecture, and an Adjunct Professor, Growth Studies Department, Rollins College.

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OK: I’ve got One Paladian window, Four Corinthian columns; Do you want a hot apple pie with that?

mount vernon1By Richard T. Reep, AIA, LEED-AP

In America, a house has always spoken volumes about its inhabitant.  Home as status symbol is a time-honored tradition: when George Washington remodeled Mount Vernon over 225 years ago, he carefully chose a neoclassical design style that expressed his growing status as a military and political leader amongst his people.  Unfortunately, today’s houses are built in an era that values skin-deep appearances; features such as stone veneer and fiberglass columns are added as if selected from a fast-food menu, but lack the design depth or quality construction to stand the test of time.

Increasingly in Winter Park, these veneer and fiberglass mansions are eclipsing authentic historic homes, and the community suffers as a result.  There are plenty of places in Central Florida that welcome fast-food box houses, flashy on the outside but not designed to last, which is fine for neighborhoods outside of Winter Park’s historical areas. Indeed, houses fitting into historic communities should be lasting and complimentary to their surroundings; in the meantime, houses that are already here and contribute to the character of the town should be honored for the whole public good.

George Washington’s case is an interesting one.  Like many of today’s homebuilders, Washington, lacking formal architectural training, used plan books, patterns and styles that were trendy among his peers, and he relied heavily on his contractor for the design details.    Yet he also used the traditional house that his father built as the basis for design, carefully integrating the old with the new.  And unlike the disposable homes of today, Mount Vernon has passed the test of time for function, endurance, and beauty.  This is the first in an occasional series of essays that are meant to examine these qualities and how they are expressed in a home, and to share some of the reasons that older homes should be respected and integrated into our lives, rather than be discarded like fast food wrappers.

Supersize me

Supersize me

McMansions, those huge homes built upon small lots out in the exurbs, began springing up in the older urban cores of our cities in the 1980s.  People who wanted big homes fast also wanted to see their property appreciate, and could see that this was happening faster in town than it was on the periphery.  Small lots were purchased and combined into one so a home could be fit onto them…and when this didn’t work, a home was squeezed onto a narrow lot anyway!

The delight of living in a place like Winter Park is to see its history through its architecture.  The materials available in the early days either came in by train, or were made out of lumber nearby.  The earliest settlers dealt with the hot, humid climate by building wood houses, open and airy, allowing natural ventilation to do its job, with deep, wrap-around porches to shade the windows.  Thick-walled Spanish style homes, favored by affluent newcomers, are more suited to an arid climate like Spain, soaking up the sun during the day and giving off heat at night, when the air cools down.

These two styles used local materials but always kept their windows to a minimum – just enough to let in the bright sunlight, not enough to let in the rain.  Plenty of land between homes assured a breeze coming through, and kept neighbors – remember, without air conditioning, the windows were open much of the year – from overhearing too much.  Overall, the homes were hand-built by craftsmen who milled much of the lumber on site, and who situated the home to take advantage of the breezes, the shade, and the view.

These older homes, after several generations develop a patina and are imbued with what many call a “sense of place.”  This can only be achieved over time, and goes beyond character to what the Germans call “stimmung”, meaning a certain atmosphere around a house.  A house’s stimmung comes from its orientation, the shape of the spaces around it, the home’s materials and colors and how it fits into the land.  All of this requires space and time and patience to come into existence.

Stimmung to spare

Stimmung to spare

To achieve this sense of character or atmosphere, a house must be well-built to begin with, and be continuously occupied, with each generation loving the house enough to respect its quirks and idiosyncracies and foibles, molding it and shaping it to fit evolving lifestyles without losing the original character.  In this way, people come to gather at a house, and turn it into a home; this is what is meant by the verb “to dwell”, and this almost magical transformation is evident in a number of older Winter Park homes.  The fact that it has happened in so many parts of Winter Park makes this place special, and it lifts all of our spirits to live here and partake of this stimmung.  This is why, in this town, historic preservation is critical, so that we maintain our ability to dwell between the pretty lakes and under the grand trees that brought our ancestors here in the beginning.

And into this sense of place comes new people, continuously, who are attracted by the beautiful aspects of the town, but who have yet to discover this magical sense of dwelling.  It takes time to discover, just as it took time to create; and in our contemporary, high-speed lifestyle, time is a highly precious commodity.  If newcomers do give themselves the time, they almost always learn to love the nuances and oddities as well as the grand parts of the town, and they learn to slow down – and get to the essence of the place, its stimmung.

parker houseWhere people have lost this sense of dwelling, you can almost always find a rapidly-developed subdivision filled with McMansions.  These tend to be large on their lots, and to have showy front facades that feature details and materials that have nothing to do with Winter Park, its history, character, climate, or anything but a builder’s plan book. In older homes, windows were placed on facades with care, and when you have viewed many old homes, a rhythm and sense of proportion arises from the window patterns, their sizes and placement on the walls.  Older homes were built by practical craftsmen, so materials like stone – weighty, massive, and good in compression – were used to hold things up, like the white masonry base on the Virginia Heights house to the left.  Homebuilders were often good carpenters, so the roofline and rafters were exquisitely carved, expressing lightness and beauty.  Thus the early bungalows and lap-siding homes had a grace and elegance about them, and a street with several of these exudes a very strong stimmung.

All of this is very, very far from the hamburger box that we started with…and for darn good reason.  These houses aren’t throwaway structures–they come from an era when architecture mattered.  And people have come to love Winter Park precisely because of this fact.  They don’t come here because we have less traffic, or lower taxes, or cheaper lots, or faster food.

People who buy houses and lots here do so because, even though they might not initially realize it, they are attracted by the sense of place that has been created here over the last century and a half.  It might take a while for that deeper understanding to be revealed.  And that’s OK, we have patience…as long as the newcomers also have patience with Winter Park, as well.  That way, we all benefit, and preserve this special sense of place for the public good, as well as for future generations.

Richard Reep is a board member of the Friends of Casa Feliz, the President of the Orlando Foundation for Architecture, and an Adjunct Professor, Growth Studies Department, Rollins College.

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