“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.
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.
The 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.
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.
So, 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.