Historic Windows Offer Views to Our Past

The parlor of Bob Weinstein's 1834 Sag Harbor home with vintage windows. Michael Heller photos

If the architecture in Sag Harbor helps tell the tale of how a colonial whaling village was built, then the windows of the village’s historic houses might be the eyes that have witnessed the story unfold.

Maybe a window has a bit of splintering wood or flaking paint at the edges, or the weighted rope mechanism hidden in an adjacent wall has failed and opening it requires physically propping it up. But the glass is of a single-pane thickness, not double, like modern windows, and it almost always has a distinct, wavy appearance that casts an eerily curved sliver of light on the opposite wall on a sunny afternoon. The mullions, which are those wooden rows that separate the panes, are of a telltale thinness that signal the window is likely original.

Original glass from Bob Weinstein’s home.

“They’re the first thing I look at — the way you notice a person’s eyes first. The gateway to the soul,” says Judith Long, a resident of Main Street who serves on Sag Harbor’s Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review (BHPAR). “In an historic house, I look for the old, wavy glass that marks it as original to the structure. It warms my heart to see it. The house’s soul is intact.”

Present-day Sag Harbor is home to many, like Long and her colleagues on the board, who fight for the preservation of those windows as an important part of history. Zachary Studenroth, a local historic preservation consultant, says fenestration — that’s a fancy word for window architecture — helps place a house’s general architectural style and era of construction into context, though he generally needs a closer look on the inside to confirm those facts. Absent the traits of an original window, replacements done long ago also continue the narrative. A mismatched window may further contribute to a house’s character, meld architectural styles in an unusual way or signal that a house was renovated during a particular era.

“Windows, generally speaking, are what we would call one of the few ‘character defining’ features of the house,” Studenroth says. “Whether they are symmetrical or not, what the sizes are, what the sash types are, those are specific features that relate to a variety of periods of construction. They’re very important architectural features of a building, which is why the BHPAR is so concerned about trying to maintain them.”

One example that immediately comes to mind is 6 Union Street, known affectionately or with disdain, based on whom you ask, as the Morpurgo house after the sisters who used to live there. The firm Breskin Development is currently reviving it after it languished in ruin for decades. But the windows — what few were left at the time the restoration began — figured prominently in unraveling the house’s history.

“You can tell what was plainly an 18th century timber frame on the inside, but the windows spoke of a later renovation in the 1870s,” says Anthony Vermandois, the architect working with Breskin Development at 6 Union Street.

Bob Weinstein, who lives in an 1834 center hall Colonial on Jefferson Street, has 27 original windows in the house, and he is proud of every single one of them. Even the ones that don’t open anymore or the ones that need to be propped open with a stick.

“It’s a little funky, but I don’t mind it … and the worst thing to do is replace old windows that are fully functioning with new ones,” Weinstein says. “I think there’s something to be said for celebrating imperfections. Not everything has to be new, new, new. And who wouldn’t want something that’s been touched by hand, rather than coldly manufactured?”

Spend some time with the BHPAR every other Thursday, and history will start to repeat itself. Over and over, owners of historic homes petition the board for permission to replace the houses’ original windows with modern and, for example, more energy efficient fenestration. The board makes its case to explain why it either declines those applications or attempts to negotiate for a mutually beneficial outcome. Board members say people don’t always understand the importance of preserving an historic home’s original windows.

“There’s two camps on that,” John Chris Connor, a board member, explains. “There’s one that does understand — that’s why they bought an historic house and want to restore it — and there’s another camp that just thinks of them as old and wants to think about energy efficiency. It’s a challenge.”

Handmade decorative trim on a Sag Harbor window.

In the past, the BHPAR has agreed to allow a homeowner to upgrade windows at the back of the house if those visible from the street are then preserved. Or in large renovation projects where not all the windows are salvageable, original windows on the back of the house can be relocated to the front to keep the historic look intact.

That was the case with a handful of windows when Weinstein renovated his house. And when he had to bring in a few replacements, “we researched and used windows with as thin a mullion as possible that blended with the old windows,” he said.

But the BHPAR tends to not budge when it comes to more decorative and period-specific windows, such as fan windows, half-fan windows and stained glass.

“Those have to be restored. For me there’s no wiggle room on that,” Connor said.

Most BHPAR members say preserving original windows is extremely important. “I love the detail and design in the trim, muntins, corbels and in many cases, the original windows are pieces of artwork,” board member Dean Gomolka says.

But there are times when it is practical to just let go of an historic window. Board member Val Florio says because some homeowners have covered up their original historic glass with layers of storm windows or energy efficiency panels, it may make sense to mandate a replica of the original window if replacements are being sought.

“If the window is covered with some type of retrofitted energy panel, it just kills the look of the window to begin with, and at that point you’ve lost that historic look and feel,” he says. “That seems to be an issue. I’ve always felt that replacement of historic windows can be done, but done very carefully, so that materials and details are done to a very high standard that visually matches the pre-existing window and replicates the original components.”

There’s a myth that old windows are universally drafty — they’ll drain your heat and your pockets. Vermandois said that’s not the case.

“If you have historic windows in the house, look at them as a resource,” he said. “Something that will add value to your house, both aesthetically and financially. Don’t look at them as something that you should instinctively just remove and replace.”

Oftentimes, local experts say, preserving an original window is easier than it looks. Not only do Sag Harbor and the surrounding areas have many trade professionals capable of bringing an old wood window frame back to life, but the wood itself is often up to the task. The blog “This Old House” explains that old wood often “has an age and character that cannot be mimicked. [It] likely grew in a natural environment where it had to fight for nutrients and sun, making [it] strong and durable.”

Vermandois concurs. “It’s interesting because the wood that was used in the 18th and early 19th centuries is actually of a much better quality than the wood used now. If you have an historic window, you want to keep it painted, you want to keep water off of it. I don’t want to say they will maintain themselves, but a well-maintained historic window will actually last longer than a new window.”

Weinstein puts it this way: “This house was built in 1834 with the intention of serving as a home for generations. New windows come with a 30-year guarantee.”

Anthony Brandt, who chairs the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review, has seen messages that were etched into old glass windows, most likely done using a diamond. He called the windows “a kind of signature in a house.”

“We see ourselves, and owners should also see themselves, as stewards of the houses in our collective charge,” Brandt says. “We are temporary, the houses are not. The houses and their appurtenances are the solidest thing we have out of our past, the best evidence of how people once lived. Thus, the importance of windows.”

The Grid: Windows Tell the Tale

Greek-revival style 6-over-6 window sashes at Sag Harbor Whaling Museum.
Federal style 12-over-12 window sashes at the Sag Harbor Custom House.
Colonial-revival style stained glass window dating to 1895-1900.
Italianate revival style casement windows, circa 1833.
Quarter-round Federal-style window with shutter, circa 1810.
An elliptical Federal window which has been painted white, circa 1900, in house dating back to 1790.
Circa 1895 folk Victorian banded sash-style windows.
Early 19th Century Federal elliptical fan light window, top, and a 6-over-6 sash window, below.
A Greek revival-style triangular window in pedimented gable, circa 1830-1840.