living & dining rooms, part 5: replacing the window

06.03 - 08.03 bill gates need not apply

click to see the full photo galleryOne of the most attractive features of an arts & crafts style house are the windows. They're usually split panes in simple geometric patterns, very beautiful, very unique.

Our house is no different. We have a lovely picture window with a leaded glass upper, a set of tri-pane upper windows, and a dining room window divided into thirds, each double-hung sash windows with a tryptic mullion on top.

And despite all the horrible things we've said about the previous owner in the time we've owned this house -- and the even worse things we've wished upon her person and progeny -- she at least had the good sense to leave the windows alone, which is to say that they're all original to the house. Well, knowing her it might've been laziness as much as good sense, but whatever. The windows are great.

Unfortunately, the dining room window had seen better days. The outer sill had begun to rot -- on one end, it was disintegrating -- and the sash cords had long since stopped working. All but one of the the windows didn't even open. One of the side windows was so bad that the glass was actually falling out of the frame so it had been caulked -- CAULKED! -- into place and then the entire window was caulked shut. (Unfortunately, we forgot to take "before" pictures to show the exact degree of damage to the window and exterior sill.)

When we had the house inspected, the dining room window was the biggest item on the report. So it's not like we didn't know it would need to be addressed sooner rather than later. The problem was, we didn't want to lose the character of the old window and we weren't sure we'd find someone who could help us save it. Sure, we could replace it with a super efficient double window, but why? I mean, it's not like the house is the model of heat efficiency. And anyway, this is Oregon, not the Arctic.

And then there was the whole interior around the window to consider. The window is integrated into the paneling and casements so the idea of ripping all of that out just made us sick to our stomachs. Even if all of that could be done, how would we match the existing stain? And what about the sash weights and cords? And how far would we have to cut into the outside of the house to get rid of the wood rot? We knew it was going to be expensive to replace that window, let alone try to have a custom window done in the same style. But there was no way to know for sure until we actually had someone come out and look.

The first contractor who came out to give an estimate laughed outright when we suggested we wanted to try to use the original glass. Our timid idea of not ripping out the paneling surrounding the window? A derisive snort and patronizing eye-roll. Subsequent contractors reiterated what the first one said, that our best bet would be to just rip out the whole thing, frame it out, and put in a standard size modern window. And no matter what, it was going to cost us a kidney and possibly an appendage to pay for the work.

Not having a kidney to spare at the moment, we procrastinated. We were talking to our neighbors one day about the whole thing because their house is much like ours. Turns out, they had a similar problem with their own dining room window and the contractor they hired to replace it not only did a FANTASTIC job, he was able to replicate the original style completely.

So they gave us his number, he came out, took fifty bazillion measurements, didn't laugh scornfully when we said we'd like to use the original glass if possible, and reassured us that the rotted sill could be addressed without taking off the whole side of the house. As it turns out, he only took out the individual windows themselves without ripping out anything, didn't cut gigantic holes into any siding, didn't tear away any of the paneling, didn't remove the casings. It was the most painless home improvement experience we've had. You do remember the carpet incident, right?

We were gobstopped when he returned with the finished windows. The only way to even tell the difference was that the stain on the new windows wasn't aged and weathered, but even then, he'd managed to meticulously match the dark color of the rest of the casing and paneling. And with the exception of the lower central window -- which was the largest and most fragile and had accidentally broken while the windows were being put together -- each window had the original glass panes, imperfections and all.

He replaced the windows themselves, NOT the exterior casings (which are what you see in the picture that need to be painted). Everything you see that's neatly painted was done by him. The outer sill on one side, which was pretty much completely gone, and the rest of the sill, which was falling apart, was fixed and tightly wrapped in aluminum siding material, sealed, and primed. You can't even tell that the sill is aluminum-clad unless you're up close. (It's really too bad we don't have the "before" pictures. It's hard to fully appreciate the full impact of the finished product without seeing what it looked like.)

The interior of the finished window -- again, because he replaced the windows only, he didn't have to tear out the casings or any of the surrounding paneling -- now works as it did when it was new. There are newly functioning sash cords, which are attached to weights inside the casing that allow the windows to move up and down smoothly. All six sections of the window now open, including the center. (Previously, only the lower left window opened, and then, only a few inches.) After spending two hot summers without being able to open up this side of the house, being able to finally open these windows was one of the biggest payoffs of any project in the house.

And we now have our beautiful dining room window in all its intended glory.

click to see full photo gallery