Windows to the past

The most rewarding moments for us in this business of remodeling an old house revolve around the moments where something old is brought to life; where that which has been neglected — often for decades — can be restored to its intended function or original appearance. Especially in this city we love that has experienced so much neglect of its physical spaces.

That’s my typically long-winded way of saying that we both love old houses and before we’d ever think about replacing something old, (our new shiny kitchen notwithstanding of course,) we love to try and bring it back.

One of our favorite features from 19th and early 20th century homes are the transoms. Transoms, in case you don’t know, are those little windows inset over doors. There are decorative transoms, like we have over our front door, that are just a pane of glass inset in a frame, but interior transoms typically swivel open. Transoms allowed you to shut a door and still have fresh air or cool breezes in summer circulating into the room before there was air conditioning.

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Transoms were one of those little details that we looked for in every house that we walked into during our house search back in the fall. If they were gone, it wasn’t a total dealbreaker — we couldn’t afford to be that picky — but we always noticed as soon as we went in. There was a house in Petworth we looked at where all of the original doorframes, doors, trim and transoms were gone. It was bigger with a huge yard and lots of upside. But it no longer had any character. We hated those kinds of houses.

There was nothing worse to us than a renovated house where all of the character and history was excised from the premises like an undesirable growth. We wanted to live in a house that felt like it had some history.

So we lucked out with this house that had so many of those little details that are just gravy for us. When we saw this house the first time one night during the week, we pretty quickly noticed all of the original hardwood floors under the carpet, the original interior doors and trim, and especially the transoms.

Upon moving in, we noticed that the interior transoms, like all the rest of the house, had been slathered in so much paint that they probably hadn’t moved in 50 years. Give ’em a nudge, give ’em a pound with a fist, but they wouldn’t budge. I could see no daylight around the edges. Nothing but paint. Layers and layers and layers of (lead loaded) paint.

I’d been talking about getting at least the transom over our bedroom unsealed and opened, especially since we’ve painted all the trim on the inside of our room and it’s pretty much finished at this point. A working transom would be icing on the cake.

So this weekend, I went up with a ladder, a putty knife, a hammer, and a dishtowel (what?) to see if I could get it unstuck. The process basically involved sticking the putty knife into the area where the seam should be, pounding it gently with a hammer, and then repeating all the way around the edge to crack all the paint. After doing that, I took the hammer, folded the dishtowel over a few times, placed it on the corner of the transom, and hit it with the hammer as hard as I dared a few times.

I repeated this around all the way around the transom and could feel it starting to give and move a little bit. A few more times and a little bit more with the putty knife, and I had our master bedroom transom unstuck and swinging open.

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Wow! I had no idea it was going to be this easy. After just another 45 minutes, I had the two other transoms unstuck and moving, though one will never open all the way because of the ductwork for the A/C that was installed about 10 years ago, keeping the transom from swinging inward at the top into the guest bedroom.

One perhaps unsurprising part of restoring anything that’s been closed up tight for 50 years is that you get to release old dirt that’s been waiting to get out. Really old dirt. I wiped down the facing inside edges of the transom that had been sealed up tight, and I wiped away dirt so black and so nasty that I think I saturated 3 rags and turned them from white to solid black. Disgusting.

But that’s the story of restoration. The dirt is wiped away and the old becomes new. Or in this case, new-ish. The transoms have been painted so sloppily that there’s plenty more to do to get them swinging smoothly and to get all the paint off the glass and looking proper. But they’re all working now, in just the same way they did when this house was delivered to some D.C. family back in the mid-1920’s.

Here are a few photos of the work and the results. As far as “before” goes, they just looked like windows over doors. Not much to photograph when they’re stuck. You can look at these while I go and sweep up all the flakes of lead paint scattered through the upstairs hallway.

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