David J. Unger The logo for David J. Unger, writer and designer David J. Unger The logo for David J. Unger, writer and designer David J. Unger



Hung in Counterbalance

The Lamp  •  March 2022

Our house has old wood windows that hang on rope and pulley. Some have broken cords, and we have to prop them open to let in the breeze. Others are jammed or painted shut. Or the glass is cracked. The exterior paint and glazing have all but eroded away. Our windows are in rough shape.

Still, my wife and I can’t bring ourselves to replace them. They feel right in our 1920s foursquare, and most vinyl replacements look like tumors on otherwise healthy flesh. Internet sleuthing reveals that, when properly restored, old wood sashes function beautifully and can match the energy efficiency of new installs. I’ve been radicalized against a window replacement industry that rips out gorgeous, rot-resistant, old-growth wood and replaces it with petrochemicals.

“Homeowners tell me they know something is wrong with ripping out all their old windows and throwing them away, but they don’t quite know what the alternative might be,” writes John Leeke, a prominent figure in the small but passionate field of historic window preservation. “They cannot find tradespeople to do the work. Over the past few decades the replacement industry has quietly eliminated the knowledgeable craftspeople who could help us take care of our fine old places, and substituted the sale and installation of products.”

These “products” are made somewhere an ocean or two away. Machine-perfect lines and ultrawhite paint might work in an orthodontist’s office, but they have no business in a home that’s seen generations grow old and die. Salesmen replace tradesmen. Local T.V. runs ads for BOGO free deals on windows with names like “Renewal” or “UniShield.” They join car dealerships and personal injury law attorneys in offering quality “service” and easy-to-remember phone numbers like “two two two twenty-two twenty-two.” Their websites offer online design and personalization tools—even augmented reality, which I’m told is the “future of ‘window shopping.’” Reality has been augmented, alright. “They have the full package,” an actress beams. She’s telling us about these products, in one of these window commercials, “a legendary quality product installed by experts with a great warranty.”

Leeke’s book, Save America’s Windows, turned us into window snoots. We decided to restore ours. Then I made the dubious decision to do it myself. Long after my wife and our children had gone to bed, I found myself in a plastic-covered bedroom, boiling decades of paint off wood with a heat gun, wearing a half-face respirator and a camping headlight to illuminate the detail work. There were moments while chiseling glazing out of some ungodly crevice that I felt that vinyl replacements weren’t so bad after all.

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The Lamp