philosophy of old windows

Hello my name is Frank and I love old windows.

Family & WindowsFranklin Vagnone with Laura Orthwein,  Claire, Emma and Sophia – surrounded by a few of the extensive window sash collection. Photos by Daniel Eller. 2001.

Frank InsideI realize most people would see my view of the world as unbearably right brained. But for me, right now, while restoring my arts and crafts bungalow, the act of reviving old windows has become a way of thinking about my life and the world around me.

I wonder; how will my children remember these chaotic summers of renovations? Are they only taking in the apparent disorder, or are they somehow aware of the greater harmony I feel at work underneath? When I grit my teeth over their little drywall-dust footprints artistically patterned over the floors and up the stairs, –   Does it bother them?  What they will remember of me, and of this, when I am gone from this world?

window painted shut
sash weight A window released from restraint & paint is so beautiful. It seems to gasp for air as you remove the suffocating pigment from its skin. Photos by Franklin Vagnone.

One thing my kids may remember of me is that I collect old windows. Lots and lots of windows – Piles of windows. I run a foster home for old windows. I recently had a contractor tell me (as he dropped off yet more discarded old windows from a job site) that he liked old doors the way that I like old windows, except not so extremely. I found comfort in the thought that others too might be stricken with an uncontrollable need to free all double-hung windows from years of imprisonment; to be rewarded with active service from these particularly useful member of the old house team; but am I extreme? Would my kids remember me as extreme?

GrumblethorpeWindow4In every act of making & re-making, there lies latent within further potential, like the seed in a fruit; future generations are already present. From every work of restoration, seeds once dormant germinate begin to grow. Photo: Grumbelthorpe Historic House Museum, Germantown, Philadelphia. Damage due to a brick thrown through a window. Photo by Franklin Vagnone.

My enthusiasm for both the material and metaphor of old windows leads me to try and convince others that they are worth the trouble of befriending. Most just see the trouble. And I do have to go through a lot to free a window. Before I can actually re-hang the window sashes, I have to pull out the stop, pry out the nails keeping the windows shut, scrape away the caulking that kept decades of winters outside, and, finally, force the sash free from bondage. Then I scrape away the old paint, sand the wood, re-glaze the exterior glass, attach new cord and the old weights to the sash, and finally test. The window must open and close using one finger.

There is no struggle with a properly restored window. Top and bottom slide effortlessly to open and close as needed. Why would someone nail, caulk, and paint a window shut? Or maybe more painful a question, why would someone go to the trouble of undoing someone else’s nailing, caulking, and painting shut of a window? I first learned to ask why more than 20 years ago, when I first noticed a neighbor carrying one of his window sashes to his workshop.   I wondered, “Where did he get that? How did it come out of the window? What’s he doing to it? And most importantly how do you get it back in? I couldn’t just leave this puzzel alone– – I had to actually move off my lawn chair and go and talk with him. My love of old windows had begun.

Pile-o-windowsThe act of stripping old wood down to discover the original grain is a labor of intense satisfaction. “The love we liberate in our work is the love we keep forever.”Elbert Hubbard. Photo By Daniel Eller 2001.

Sometimes windows are stupid; they can’t open or close . On the other hand, some windows have the ability to incrementally adapt to subtle nuances of need – to adjust. A good window moves. To nail a window shut is to deny the very purpose and usefulness of its existence. When I see an old house whose windows have been pried open and released from their artificially closed state, I can feel its thankful breath billowing in and out. All I can think about are the lives that depend on the house; that the good of a house is the dwelling in it.

Which leads me to my philosophy of old windows, born of my love of restoring them and what they have taught me.

I think that every generation deserves the right to re-establish, re-invent and restore itself. Like windows, we can open and close our minds as the decades pass. What’s a necessity in one generation becomes useless hardware in another. I believe to take something that has become obsolete, and restore it to its place as a useful object is a great application of the power of our minds. In doing so, we re-evaluate and re-purpose what came before, attaining a new understanding of how we want to live in the present, and what artifacts of our purpose we want to leave behind.

Restoring a window is not simply an act of re-possessing a material object, but is an honoring of a creative, productive, useful legacy.

Years ago, one of my young daughters sat watching me sand a window in our dining room, and asked why was I tearing a-part the house I replied that I wanted our windows to work, to be useful. She sat still – looking serenely at the hole in the wall that is the window and enjoying the breeze afforded by the opening, and said: “can I help?” I handed her some sash cord thinking that she would tie knots. She began to jump rope with it.

The philosophy of old windows had been reinvented.

EmaI think that every generation deserves the right to re-establish, re-invent and restore itself. Photo by Daniel Eller 2001.

windows 2 love of old windows takes tolerance – a lot of tolerance. Photo by Daniel Eller 2001.


NOTE: This article was originally written in 2001 and revised in 2014. Edited by Laura Orthwein with photographs by Daniel Eller.

4 thoughts on “philosophy of old windows

  1. Like you, I love old windows as well, but find issues of lead paint abatement difficult. Technically, sanding is probably the easiest way to restore an old wood window, but I’m not willing to put myself (and family) at risk from all that lead dust exposure. Paint stripping is time consuming, messy, and very, very labor intensive. How have you addressed these issues?


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