Currently Reading

A brief history of windows in America

A brief history of windows in America

Historic window experts from Hoffmann Architects look back at the origin of windows in the U.S.

By Hoffmann Architects | June 28, 2013
It’s easy to lose sight of the significance of historic windows when all they seem to contribute to the building aesthetic is peeling paint, rotting wood, corroding steel, or broken glass. To appreciate the architectural worth of aging windows, we must look back, briefly, at their origins.
The earliest American windows were wood casement windows, hinged at the sides. By the early 1800s, sliding single- and double-hung windows had come into popular use. However, devastating fires in a number of U.S. cities during the late 19th century led to the widespread adoption of strict fire codes, which decreased the prevalence of wood windows.
At the same time, the Industrial Revolution brought about major advances in rolled steel, permitting the mass production of steel windows. These fire-resistant frames and sashes became the standard for factories and commercial buildings, as well as for larger residential and university buildings, while wood windows continued to dominate the single-family residential market.
Steel remained the primary material for industrial, commercial, and institutional windows in the United States well into the 20th century. The strength of steel permitted larger expanses of glass, which enabled the thin profiles and repeated window patterns of Art Deco and early Modernist buildings. Then, after World War II, aluminum windows gained popularity due to their lower price and non-corroding properties. Toward the end of the 20th century, wood windows also fell out of fashion, as many homeowners replaced the original windows on their turn-of-the-century houses with vinyl, both for its inexpensiveness and for its promise of minimal maintenance.
Unfortunately, the replacement of original wood or steel windows with cheaper materials can significantly impact building appearance. Aluminum, for example, is much weaker than steel, requiring bulkier frame profiles that can destroy the delicate look afforded by multi-pane steel windows. Likewise, vinyl may discolor and warp over time, making it a far less durable material over the long term than the original wood.
The good news for building owners is that options for treating deteriorated historic windows are plentiful. Energy-saving retrofits, repair, or parts replacement can restore existing windows to like-new functional condition. Should replacement be called for, it is often possible to locate or custom-make historic replicas that won’t compromise building character.

Related Stories

Multifamily Housing | Sep 22, 2021

11 notable multifamily projects to debut in 2021

A residence for older LGBTQ+ persons, a P3 student housing building, and a converted masonic lodge highlight the multifamily developments to debut this year. 

Data Centers | Sep 22, 2021

Wasted energy from data centers could power nearby buildings

A Canadian architecture firm comes up with a concept for a community that’s part of a direct-current microgrid.

Hotel Facilities | Sep 22, 2021

Will hotel developers finally embrace modular construction?

Last May, MiTek, a construction software and building services company that’s part of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate, formed a partnership with Danny Forster & Architecture to promote modular design and construction.

Arena | Sep 20, 2021

LA Clippers unveil $1.8 billion Intuit Dome

AECOM is the lead designer for the project.

University Buildings | Sep 7, 2021

Gateway to the West: Kansas City University Center for Medical Education Innovation

Kansas City University Center for Medical Education Innovation uses GKD Omega 1520 metal fabric.

Architects | Sep 2, 2021

Remembering architect and author Lance Hosey: 1964 - 2021

Architect, sustainability expert, author, and public speaker Lance Hosey passed away unexpectedly on August 27.

Multifamily Housing | Sep 1, 2021

Top 10 outdoor amenities at multifamily housing developments for 2021

Fire pits, lounge areas, and covered parking are the most common outdoor amenities at multifamily housing developments, according to new research from Multifamily Design+Construction.

Architects | Sep 1, 2021

Design unveiled for Copia Vineyards Winery and Tasting Room

Clayton Korte designed the project.

Giants 400 | Aug 30, 2021

2021 Giants 400 Report: Ranking the largest architecture, engineering, and construction firms in the U.S.

The 2021 Giants 400 Report includes more than 130 rankings across 25 building sectors and specialty categories.

Laboratories | Aug 30, 2021

Science in the sky: Designing high-rise research labs

Recognizing the inherent socioeconomic and environmental benefits of high-density design, research corporations have boldly embraced high-rise research labs. 

More In Category

Magazine Subscription

Get our Newsletters

Each day, our editors assemble the latest breaking industry news, hottest trends, and most relevant research, delivered to your inbox.


Follow BD+C: