Skip to Content
Search Icon

Nunc Dimittis

Hung in Counterbalance

On windows.


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.

If nothing else, D.I.Y. window work has given me something to do. I love tending to these things. I think about the mill that sawed the wood. I picture the craftsmen who installed them nearly a century ago. I think of all the families who lived here before mine and the time they (or local hired hands) put into these windows. Putting life back into long-dead trees orients things vertically, away from myself. It glorifies God.

Much of the talk these days about young people delaying or altogether forgoing marriage, children, and home ownership is bound up in what this means for individuals (will the youth turn out okay without a mortgage?) or the economy (how will Ford survive if millennials don’t buy cars?). One hears less about the implication for society, the country, or even civilization, but it seems worth considering. Instead of starting a family, maybe start a podcast.

For most of my twenties, I bought into all that. It didn’t occur to me that I was buying into anything at all. I see now that it is a bill of goods. While I can’t bring myself now to be the old bore wagging his finger at the youths, insisting that all would be well if the kids would grow up, start families, and buy houses, I do think there was value in the hours I spent tending to these windows. The moderating effect of responsibility is vastly underrated. Stewardship pushes us up to loftier considerations, but it also moves us down into reality. Gravity acts upon the sash pulleys I hold in my hand.

David J. Unger’s writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

To continue reading, subscribe to The Lamp.

Get unlimited access to our complete archive when you subscribe.

Already a Subscriber?