All of the windows in my 113 year old farmhouse are original, except for the one new triple-track aluminum deal in the kitchen that looks out onto the driveway. Much of the glass is original, too. “Albany glass” they call it around here, but in other parts of the country it probably has other names, or perhaps the name of the town where the glass factory stood. The old glass has ripples in it, actual wrinkles you can feel with your fingers as they pass over the otherwise smooth glass. And bubbles. In some places, quite a few tiny air bubbles, and in other places, individual larger ones. I’ve had to replace a few panes of glass during my 34-year tenure caring for the Ark. It always makes my heart ache a little when I must break up and throw away this antique glass.
The lifting and latching of the windows brings a mixed bag of the original workings. A single spring-loaded latch is in the center of each lower sash. On some windows, the ancient cast iron pieces within have cracked and broken off, and the latch does nothing at all. These windows get propped open with retired curtain rods. On a few of the windows, the latches still work. Most probably had window weights concealed within the window frame. A rounded length of iron about the diameter of a cigar, usually about a foot long. These were originally attached by sash cord, long since decayed within its wood confines. The window weight would offer a counterbalance, an assist to lift the window as well as a resistance to slow the sash’s descent.
They are as inefficient as one would expect an original 1906 window to be. Pretty sure I have actually seen tiny crystals of snow driven through them in the height of a winter’s blizzard. In the frozen season, condensation on the inside of the windows often freezes on the glass. Whenever we see this, we call it “Zhivago glass”, as it reminds us of the scenes in “Dr. Zhivago”, when he and his charges are holed up in Siberia. Giving it ringing names and associating it with the stark beauty shown in the movies helps distract us from the fact that the window is no better than the one Zhivago looked through in 1890.
The windows are large and ornate. Houses don’t have large and ornate windows anymore, just vinyl rectangles. The tops of the windows out front are rounded. 10 round-top double-sash windows frame the coffin doors, with two round-top lights of its own. (“Coffin doors” refer to the main entrance at the front of the house. ((We call that “the dooryard” around here)). One door is used most of the time, the one with the doorknob. The other side of the double door was intended to be opened to bring a coffin into and out of the house. When it was built, this is the way funerals were done in the sticks.)
We had a sales person call on us to pitch us custom vinyl replacement windows. His first shock was the sheer number. For living spaces alone (excluding the “attic” windows) there were 18 of them. He measured and calculated. Were we sure we wanted them the same size? “100 united inches” I think was the term. Surely we would want a standard, smaller vinyl rectangle? Less expensive and more energy efficient. He choked a little when quoting the price (more than twenty years ago) at $18,000!
Okay, last thing, window guy. You know your custom windows that are made-to-order to fit the openings in my home? Well, will the ten out front have the same rounded tops? Well, not exactly, window guy says. We could fashion a mask for the outside that evokes the shape of the round top. Nope. Stop right there.
There is a tremendous beauty in these windows. Like most things I love, their inherent beauty is the attractant. Not efficiency. In the fall, I make my rounds to each one. A couple of screws jammed in the sides will hold the lower sash tightly against the upper. Then rope caulk is applied to the gap. In the spring, I visit each again, removing the caulk and the screws. Flinging them open, however briefly, symbolically putting winter to bed.
I could have had eighteen modern, efficient vinyl rectangles in these places. A lower heat bill. No need for rope caulk.
In June I will go upstairs and open the front and back windows in the center hall. This is the official start of summer for me. Breezes will move through, and birdsong. And the smell of the rain, and the sound of the neighbor’s birthday party across the road. The rumbling of summer thunderstorms, the voice of the wind in the leaves of the great maple trees which tower over the two-story house. In spring, the sound of the robin leaping from the nest it has built atop the window frame. In August, the smell of the third cutting of hay, drying in the field adjacent. The smell of the diesel tractor crawling up the road with a wagon of hay bales stacked impossibly high. The sound of lawn mowers and dirt bikes and dogs barking.
In the peak of the summer heat I will go upstairs to fetch something. At the top of the stairs I am met with a unique fragrance. It is the smell of a very old house. Century-old wood. Horse-hair plaster over hand-cut lath. Ancient wallpapers. It smells of all the things it has always smelled like, and not unlike the attic of my parents old farmhouse. I can’t know how much longer I will be in this house, or in this world. But I know in the meantime I will delight in that old familiar smell of an old, old house owned by old people. Unchanged but for those few places where it was deemed absolutely necessary. And my kids and grandkids will share this experience. This smell. This old Ark.
And until I go, you will not smell vinyl. You may be a little chilly in the winter. And you can look out at ancient trees which are as old as the wavy, bubble-filled glass you are looking through.
Take care, and keep in touch.