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Windows to the Past:

Historically Accurate Window Restoration in New Orleans

New Orleans—a city synonymous with rich history, vibrant culture, and timeless architecture. But what’s often overlooked is the role that windows play in telling the architectural narrative of the Big Easy. They are more than just apertures to let light in; they’re the eyes of a structure, offering us a glimpse into the past. In a city that takes its heritage seriously, knowing how to restore windows while adhering to the Historic District Landmarks Commission (HDLC) guidelines isn’t just a skill—it’s an art form. This guide aims to offer a comprehensive look at what it takes to master that art.

The Importance of Windows in Architectural History

In the panorama of architectural elements, windows have served not only practical purposes but also aesthetic ones. Their style, size, materials, and detailing can signify architectural periods, technological advancements, and cultural shifts.

Windows and New Orleans' Cultural Narrative

From Creole townhouses to shotgun homes, the windows of New Orleans reflect the city’s multicultural heritage. Restoring them is akin to preserving the city’s soul—one pane at a time.

The HDLC Blueprint

The HDLC guidelines are essentially the Holy Grail when it comes to historic restoration. Their rigor ensures that the city’s structures remain intact, not just in brick and mortar but in spirit.


Materials in Greater Depth

Historically Accurate Types of Wood: A Window into the Past

Cypress: The Long-Standing Favorite

In New Orleans, cypress wood stands as a testament to durability and timelessness. Given its innate resistance to moisture, this wood was a natural choice in a city renowned for its humid environment. Cypress is not only rot-resistant but also hosts a beautiful grain that can be accentuated with minimal finishes, a feature that made it a high-demand resource in historic New Orleans architecture.

Longleaf Pine: The Unsung Hero

Longleaf pine is another classic that was commonly used for sash windows, especially in early 20th-century homes. It offers an excellent strength-to-weight ratio, which is particularly valuable for sashes that need to be both sturdy and easily operable. What’s fascinating about longleaf pine is its dense growth rings, giving the wood unique resilience against wear and tear.

Mahogany: The Luxe Alternative

Although less common due to its cost, mahogany found its way into the homes of the well-to-do. Its rich hue and fine grain made it a favored choice for ornamental elements. For those seeking a historically accurate restoration with a touch of opulence, mahogany sets the bar high.

Oak: The Continental Import

Oak was not as common as cypress or pine but deserves a mention. Imported from the Northeast or even from Europe, oak windows are more likely to be found in structures with architectural influences from outside the Gulf region. Its durability and characteristic grain make it a worthy, though less frequent, player in the historic window game.

Modern Window Materials: The New Kids on the Block

Vinyl: The Cost-Effective Choice

Today, vinyl windows are ubiquitous due to their cost-effectiveness and low maintenance. They are rot-proof, which on the surface seems like a boon. However, they can’t be repaired in the same way as wood. Once a vinyl window frame cracks or warps, the whole unit typically needs replacement.

Aluminum: The Lightweight Performer

Aluminum offers excellent durability and a modern aesthetic. But here’s the rub: it lacks the insulating properties of wood. This may not align well with the energy efficiency needs of a historic home, where the original windows were designed for natural air circulation.

Fiberglass: The Aspiring Contender

Fiberglass is a relatively new entrant that combines some of the best features of both wood and synthetic materials. It’s sturdy, less prone to warping, and can be painted to mimic the appearance of wood. However, its texture and feel fall short of delivering the authenticity that a historic home demands.

Composite: The Hybrid Solution

Comprising wood fibers and epoxy resins, composite materials offer an interesting blend of old and new. They resist rot and require less maintenance than wood, but purists might argue that they lack the soul of historic materials.

Wood vs. Modern Materials: The Key Differences

Repair vs. Replace

Historic woods like cypress and longleaf pine were chosen not just for their beauty but also for their ability to be repaired. With proper care, wood windows can last centuries. Modern materials, on the other hand, usually follow a “replace rather than repair” model, a practice at odds with the ethos of historic restoration.

Thermal Performance

Wood offers natural insulation, a feature often missing in metals like aluminum. Though modern materials have made strides in thermal performance, they usually require additional treatments or coatings to match the natural efficiency of wood.

Authenticity and Aesthetics

While synthetic materials strive to mimic the look of wood, they rarely capture the subtle grain patterns, the unique tones, or the way wood ages over time. When restoring a historic home, these nuances are not trivial—they add to the historical authenticity of the property.


The journey from cypress and longleaf pine to vinyl and aluminum reflects not just technological advances but shifts in how we value materials. The woods of yesteryear speak of a commitment to longevity and a deep respect for natural variance, traits that get diluted in the mass-produced materials of today. In a city like New Orleans, where each building can be a time capsule, choosing historically accurate wood isn’t just about following HDLC guidelines. It’s about making a conscious decision to be part of a tradition that honors the beauty of natural materials and the skill of human craftsmanship.


Evolution of Glass Manufacturing

While float glass is common today, historic homes often use cylinder or crown glass. Knowing the difference can impact the restoration outcome.

Sourcing Historic Glass

Restorers often need to source glass that matches the historical period. Specialty suppliers can provide types like blown glass that mimic antique windows.


Sash Weights and Cords: The Hidden Mechanisms

Cast Iron Weights: Balancing the Past

The primary function of sash weights is to counterbalance the window sash, making it easier to open and close the window. In historic homes, these are generally made of cast iron. Covered in a layer of protective paint to prevent rusting, these weights are often compartmentalized in a weight pocket within the window frame. When restoring historic windows, it’s crucial to check these pockets for wear and tear. A failure in the weight system usually renders a window inoperable, so it’s a component you don’t want to overlook.

Sash Cords: The Unsung Heroes

The sash cord, typically made from braided cotton or sometimes even hemp, connects the sash weight to the window. Over time, these cords can break or deteriorate, requiring replacement. The key is to choose a material that mimics the original in texture and strength, which, according to HDLC guidelines, often means avoiding synthetic replacements like nylon.

Locks and Latches: More Than Just Security Devices

Casement Fasteners and Sash Locks: A Lock for Each Era

Different eras favored different types of locks, and the hardware can often be a clue to the window’s age. Casement fasteners with a pivoting arm were common in older Creole cottages, while sash locks became standard in later periods, especially in the Greek Revival and Victorian homes that pepper the New Orleans landscape. These locks don’t just secure the window; they also help seal it against weather and noise when properly installed.

Fitch Fasteners: The Lock of Versatility

Named after its inventor, the Fitch fastener is a sash lock that gained popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s particularly versatile, working well on both vertical and horizontal windows. For a homeowner keen on maintaining absolute historical accuracy, sourcing original or meticulously replicated Fitch fasteners might be a mission worth undertaking.

Weatherstripping: Meeting Modern Demands While Preserving History

Bronze V-Strips: The Golden Middle

Weatherstripping is where modern demands for energy efficiency meet historic authenticity. HDLC guidelines favor the use of bronze V-strip weatherstripping. This metal is both durable and flexible, providing a long-lasting seal that doesn’t detract from the historic look of the window. It’s an option that performs well without compromising on aesthetics.

Spring Bronze: The Old Reliable

Spring bronze weatherstripping is another option that finds favor among purists. When installed correctly, it maintains a snug fit for the window, providing excellent weather insulation and energy efficiency. Its bronze color also weathers gracefully, adding a natural patina that complements historic windows.

Flashings: The Unsung Protectors

Flashings, typically made from metal like lead or copper, serve to direct water away from the window and the wall, preventing water intrusion and damage. In historic homes, these were often ornamental, adding to the aesthetic appeal of the windows. These are generally custom-made to fit each window, and their restoration often involves careful removal, repair, and reinstallation, especially when dealing with metals like copper that can gain a unique patina over time.


The hardware of a historic window is much like the inner workings of a clock—each piece, no matter how small, plays a critical role in the overall function and integrity of the system. As you embark on a journey to restore historic windows, each screw you tighten, and each latch you fasten is a step closer to reviving a piece of New Orleans’ illustrious architectural history. The HDLC guidelines provide a roadmap, but it’s the intricate details in the hardware that breathe life into these windows, making them not just functional elements but historic artifacts worth preserving.

Restoration Techniques

The Preliminary Reconnaissance

Before even touching a chisel to wood, you need a blueprint. Conducting a thorough initial audit of your windows is this blueprint. Start by examining the general condition of the window frame and sash. Look for signs of rot, warping, or broken glass. Don’t overlook hardware; inspect locks, latches, and pulleys for wear and tear.

HDLC Recommendations

Should you go it alone? While you can, our recommendation would be to consult with restoration professionals. The HDLC guidelines strongly recommend consultations with window preservation specialists, ensuring that you don’t inadvertently strip a window of its historic value. This involves a nuanced understanding of the types of alterations that can be made under the umbrella of “restoration.”

Joinery Techniques: The Backbone of Restoration

The Mortise and Tenon Tale

Joinery is not merely an assembly; it’s a language that speaks of the times when these windows were first crafted. For instance, the mortise and tenon joint has been used for thousands of years and is often found in windows of historic homes across New Orleans. It involves a male “tenon” and a female “mortise” fitting together, usually secured with pegs or nails. Restoring such windows involves not only replicating these joints but also understanding their role in the structural integrity of the window. These methods were designed to last, but only if preserved correctly.

Paint and Glaze: The Finish Line

Types of Paints and Glazes

Once your window is structurally sound, it’s time for the finishing touches. Lead-based paints were prevalent in older homes, but obviously, you’ll want to remove those in favor of safer alternatives. That said, paints like linseed-oil-based paints and milk paints were used in the 19th century and are often considered when striving for period-appropriate restoration. The glaze was also applied in different ways depending on the era; older windows often had putty glazing applied by hand.

Stripping Best Practices

Stripping paint and glaze is not a task for the impatient. Different techniques have their own merits. Chemical stripping is often preferred for windows with intricate detailing, as it can reach into crevices and ornate grooves that mechanical methods cannot. However, mechanical methods like sanding can be effective for larger, flatter surfaces.

Anatomy of a Window: The Basics

Sashes: The Movers and Shakers

At the core of every window are the sashes. In a double-hung window, you’ll find two: an upper (or “top”) sash and a lower (or “bottom”) sash. These can move vertically, facilitated by the sash weights and cords we discussed earlier. Single-hung windows have a stationary top sash and a movable bottom sash. The design of the sash — whether it has divided lites or a singular pane of glass — can reveal much about the architectural style and period of a building.

Stiles and Rails: The Sash Skeleton

The sash itself is made up of vertical components called stiles and horizontal elements known as rails. The top rail, bottom rail, and lock rail are especially crucial as they not only provide structure but also facilitate the window’s operation.

Mullions and Muntins: Dividing It All Up

Mullions are vertical or horizontal dividers that separate individual windows within a larger frame. Muntins are the slender strips of wood that divide the glass within a single window sash. The patterns formed by muntins can range from simple to intricate, often serving as a fingerprint of a particular architectural era.

Anatomy Specific to New Orleans

Transoms: The Overlooked Overhead Elements

In New Orleans, you’ll often find transom windows over the main window or door. Not only do they allow extra light into the interior, but they also aid in ventilation. In a city where summers can be sweltering, the importance of natural airflow in historical architecture cannot be overstated.

Shutters: More Than Just Window Dressing

Especially common in Creole architecture, shutters serve a dual purpose. They offer protection from the elements—particularly important during hurricane season—and they contribute aesthetically to the home’s overall appearance. Louvered shutters allow for air circulation even when closed, whereas panel shutters provide more robust protection against inclement weather.

Arched Tops: The Flourish of Greek Revival

If your historic home features arched-top windows, you’re likely looking at Greek Revival or Italianate architecture. These arched windows are generally more elaborate and may include intricate muntin patterns or even stained glass, a feature that lends an air of grandiosity.
capture the subtle grain patterns, the unique tones, or the way wood ages over time. When restoring a historic home, these nuances are not trivial—they add to the historical authenticity of the property.

Casement Windows: The French Connection

If your New Orleans home features casement windows that swing outward, you’re witnessing the French influence on local architecture. These windows often employ unique locking mechanisms like cremone bolts, adding a layer of historical authenticity.

Jalousie Windows: A Tropical Import

While less common, jalousie windows made up of parallel slats of glass that open and close like a Venetian blind, can be found in some Mid-century homes. These windows are excellent for ventilation but provide limited security and insulation, making them a bit of an outlier in the landscape of New Orleans window types.

Special Glazing Techniques

Historic windows often employed specific types of glazing, with putty being the most common in older homes. In some high-end projects, you might also find glazing beads—a more modern solution that still retains a classic look.

Understanding the Anatomy of Restoration

While the HDLC guidelines offer a roadmap for historical restoration, a deep understanding of window anatomy allows for an approach that’s both accurate and respectful to the original architecture. Knowing whether your upper sash should feature an ogee or a square profile can make the difference between a restoration that’s passable and one that’s impeccable.


Q: What distinguishes #Historically Accurate Window Restoration from simple renovation?

A: The key lies in preserving the original materials and design, thereby maintaining a connection with history.

Q: What are the cost implications?

A: Restoration typically involves more intricate work and can be costlier, but the value it adds in maintaining historical integrity is immeasurable.

Q: How does one find a qualified expert in New Orleans?

A: Look for craftsmen with demonstrable expertise in traditional methods and a deep understanding of New Orleans’ architectural heritage.


The pursuit of Historically Accurate Window Restoration is a journey into the heart and soul of New Orleans’ rich cultural tapestry. It is more than mere carpentry; it is a scholarly engagement with the past. The restored windows stand not just as functional elements but as vibrant connections to a bygone era. They remind us that preserving our architectural heritage is not a mere act of nostalgia but a profound commitment to our cultural legacy. This undertaking resonates with the pulse of New Orleans, turning every restored window into a living testament to the city’s multifaceted history.