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Like old times (only better), Restoring original panes and frames gives homeowners windows to the past

By Mary Beth Klatt, Special to the Tribune, October 25, 2007

Before Jill and Charley Gross began restoring their 1870s Italianate house in Wilmette, Jill Gross explored Evanston, looking at comparable homes from the same era. She was struck by how the original windows — narrow and tall with ornate trim — contributed to the overall appearance of those 19th Century houses.

The search for comparable homes helped her decide that she wanted wooden storm windows rather than something that would detract from the house's charm.

She hired restoration consultant Neal Vogel, principal of Restoric LLC in Evanston, and Restoration Works Inc., a Kankakee firm that specializes in rehabbing old windows, to repair and update the pine windows in the two-story dwelling.

"It's the only way to go," says Restoration Works owner Gail Wallace, most known for her window work on landmarks such as Schurz High School, the Rookery and Water Tower. "People don't realize that the old wood is so precious — it has inherent qualities that you can't buy today. It's denser, solid, made of heart wood with no knots."

What's more, windows with old-growth timber tended to be thicker and stronger than their contemporary counterparts.

While damaged old windows appear fragile and useless, restoration specialists can breathe new life into the old frames by disassembling them, removing old paint, regluing, adding new glass and new parts if necessary. Sticklers for period accuracy can even have old glass inserted into the vintage frames.

The panes for the window frames in Vogel's California-style bungalow were produced on a cylinder in the 1920s. Consequently, they have the imperfections and bubbles typical of glass produced at that time. Even the wavy and bent glass from the 19th Century is available. Ditto the bent glass essential for a curved window on a Victorian turret, according to Vogel.

Gross could have chosen the wavy glass for her windows since it would have been more historically accurate, but she decided to keep the original glass in each window intact (the house has four or five generations of windows, some dating as late as the 1920s).

The details aren't cheap. Property tax breaks for owners in historic districts won't likely cover all costs, according to Vogel. He estimates he has spent $500 to $600 for each of the five leaded glass zinc windows in his Wilmette residence, and he's likely to spend thousands of dollars more before he's finished bringing his 1920 home back to its original Arts and Crafts look. The home was remodeled in the 1940s into more of a Colonial look. "We have a throw-away society," says Vogel. "[Fixing old windows] is not for those people, it's for smaller niche markets, the preservation market that gets it."

The time, expense, and aggravation are worth it for Vogel. The old-growth mahogany and pine windows in his home will easily last 100 years.

While Vogel has spent a considerable amount on his dwelling, he feels he is doing what's right for the environment.

"It's all about sustainability," he says. "We have 51 windows — at that time (the 1920s) they relied more on daylight and ventilation." What's more, he doesn't have central air-conditioning. Instead, he has an in-home unit in two bedrooms because he didn't want a window-fitted air conditioner to detract from the beauty of his bungalow.

However, not all broken casements need to be removed. Sometimes it's just a matter of fixing a rope or removing painted-over jamb and sash so they can function. Jo Stavig's husband, Steve Knoebber, was able to fix most of the original windows on their 1921 Chicago bungalow in the West Ridge neighborhood.

"A homeowner with some skill can do it," she says. "It doesn't take tremendous carpentry or a lot of skills."

Now there's more incentive for Chicago bungalow owners to follow Vogel's lead. The Historic Chicago Bungalow Initiative (HCBI) recently changed its policy so owners can receive a match of up to $1,000 for costs incurred restoring their windows. The initiative also is offering matching grants of up to $1,000 to help bungalow owners pay for new wood storm windows, according to Annette Conti, executive director of the Historic Chicago Bungalow Association. The bungalow association administers the work of the initiative.

"Vinyl windows don't have the longevity of wood windows," says Conti. "Old-growth windows are worth conserving."

Even windows that aren't fixed usually aren't the major cause of energy loss in an old dwelling. Most heat loss occurs in an uninsulated attic or basement, according to an HCBI study. Usually an uninsulated attic or basement usually is responsible for high gas bills, only 10 percent of heat is released through uninsulated windows.

The Grosses have only started living in their new home this year, but they are pleased with the windows. "They did a great job," Jill Gross says.

Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune

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