Paul Newman’s Toaster

Posted September 24th, 2015 by maryanthony and filed in Executive Director's Blog
Linden Place received a grant from the 1772 Foundation to repair the leaded glass fanlight windowsLinden Place in Bristol, RI received a 2015 grant from the 1772 Foundation to repair the leaded glass fanlight windows

”We’re a throw-away society, aren’t we?  We throw away everything. We never even try to fix things – we throw them away, we destroy things – appliances that break, old buildings because they’re old, we throw away relationships that aren’t exactly what we thought they’d be, we throw away wives, husbands, marriages.”   Paul Newman quote ~ NYT February 11, 1990

Paul Newman is the patron saint of people, places and things that may seem to have lost their value but whose worth has only been enriched by time and struggle: critically ill children, historic buildings, his beautiful wife, and broken toasters. His eyes were startling blue and piercing- windows to a soul that was worth exploring; soulfulness wrapped around the idea that being a throwaway society is truly wrong.

I thought about his quote while discussing the problem of how to handle historic windows, the “eyes” of historic structures and the frequent target of environmentalists and home improvement businesses who push replacement windows as an energy and cost-saving solution for home and business owners.

Historic windows can be a real challenge – often wooden, single-paned, leaky and of random sizes.   So, why not throw ’em away and replace with something that promises so much more like manufactured vinyl replacements?

Because, as with many overly simplistic solutions, this one fails to look at the real impact of caving to this  “easy” solution.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation outlines the case for a Paul Newman-approach in:

Here’s the rundown from the Trust’s excellent piece, which I encourage you to read:

~ Historic windows, particularly those made before the 1940’s, are from old growth wood which is denser and stronger than modern equivalents.

~ Replacement windows probably won’t fit right- the original ones were custom-built for the opening.  Guess what ill-fitting windows do?  Leak.

~ When you replace, you throw the old one in a landfill.  Don’t throw old growth wood and craftsmanship into the landfill.  Just don’t.

~ New factory-built windows can’t be repaired easily because they are manufactured as a unit.  Historic windows can be and, even better, by local craftsmen. If the manufactured window has a broken component and it can’t be fixed, we will now be contributing another window to the landfill.  Let’s not do that.

~ Historic wood windows, combined with storms and weather stripping, can be nearly or as energy efficient as replacements.

~ The energy cost-savings payback period on factory built units is pretty long – some studies show up to 40 years, and that’s before you consider that replacement windows typically fail within 20.

~ Historic windows are character-defining.  Maybe this is the softest argument but, when you look at a historic building that has replacement windows, it generally looks wrong.  One colleague referred to this short-sighted solution as “gouging out the eyes” of the building for economic and environmental reasons that just don’t hold up.  Our culture and history is embedded in the complete structure- design and proportions matter.

Windows are the eyes of a house, and eyes are the windows to the soul.  Don’t gouge them out.  Don’t put them in a landfill.  Think of Paul Newman’s beautiful peepers and his more beautiful soul, which celebrated the beauty of older and imperfect people, places and things.  All are worthy of a little more care and effort and their value will only appreciate with our thoughtful attention.  Think before you throw them away.