Madison Monday: the view from the window

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Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them. . .a place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.

Inspired by this quote from Joan Didion sent to me by a friend, last week I set out to begin writing more intentionally about Madison as a scenic place.  Scenic not in the sense of the most beautiful places or views, though of course, there will be some of that.  But to write some about what Madison looks like, which is of course, connected to the kind of place Madison is.  Last week, it was our streets.  Today, it’s our windows.

Rainy days make me especially appreciative of windows.  They seem to become more present on a rainy day.  You can see the pattern of rain splattered against them and watch the drops slide down their surface.  You can hear the sound of raindrops pattering or hammering against them.  You can appreciate the barrier they provide between you and the outside world.  So it seems appropriate on what began as a rainy day in Madison to think about our windows.

When you live in a historic house, your perspective on accommodations is in danger of being altered, whether you like it or not.  You are living in a space that was created by a group of people with a very different culture from your own.  In many downtown Madison houses, the people who built your house did so sometime in the beginning half of the 19th century, and as the British writer  L.P. Hartley said, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

If your house was built in 1950, the space between yourself and the culture that created your house is a little less than the almost 200 year gap you live with in a historic house in Madison.  And so you must re-think the meaning of even the most basic of features, such as windows.

The objects to which windows in a historic home are most closely related are not decorative items, but utilitarian ones; when you look at a window in a historic home, you should think about lamps and candles as equivalent objects.  Windows in historic homes are primarily lighting devices.  It doesn’t take much effort to notice that the windows in old houses are long and tall compared to most modern windows.  They run almost the whole height of the wall in many houses.  They are designed to maximize the amount of natural light that gets inside.

This is surely part of what can make living in a historic home such a pleasure–the light.  You can contemplate here briefly all the implications of the historical shift that led us away from living in rooms that depended primarily on natural light to living much of our lives in places with artificial light.  Or let me briefly contemplate them for you.  We built power structures (political, energy-related and otherwise) that are dependent upon non-renewable sources to fulfill our lighting needs.  We constructed lives in which we are unable to function without being provided with this energy from non-renewable sources.  We violated a vaguely natural sense of time in which activities adapt to the rising and setting of the sun, rather than defying those realities.  We told ourselves that on some physiological, psychological, spiritual and communal level exposure to natural light was unimportant.  Contemplation ended.

The long, tall windows in historic homes also bring us up against the reality of our own modern ideas about privacy.  Or rather, our modern obsession with privacy from the people with whom we share physical space; privacy in the virtual world is a whole different ballgame.  You might think of the internet as a series of windows which we have constructed in order to allow all kinds of people to observe our private behaviors.

But as someone who grew up in 20th century housing with curtains and window shades and blinds, confronting these almost floor to ceiling windows in my own historic house was somewhat daunting.  It wasn’t, after all, as if I were living out in the country where there was no one around to see into my windows.  In fact, people were walking by my windows with an alarming frequency.  How do you balance the need for light against the need for privacy?

I confess that I’m not sure if this is a solution that originates in the 19th century when downtown houses were built, or came along later, but the answer is surprisingly simple–shutters.  Not all of the tall windows in my house are equipped with these devices, but I wish they were.

In some houses, there are two sets of shutters–some for the upper half of the window and some for the lower.  In my house, there are only lower shutters.  They are inside the house, of course.  They are so easily moved that our cats can open them if they’re feeling even mildly determined (I confess I don’t know if the cats can close the shutters, as they seem largely uninterested in matters of privacy).  But if you close the shutters over the lower half of your window, you have effectively prevented anyone on the street from seeing into your house while still allowing for all the light from the top half of the window to come into your room completely unimpeded.

Now let me qualify that a bit.  Of course, if only your lower shutters are closed, people can still see into your house.  What they can see are the corners in your ceiling and perhaps whether or not your ceiling fan is on.  If they’re very lucky, at night they can see the weirdly reflected light of a television screen.  Essentially they can see the upper half of your house, which unless you have a very strange kind of lifestyle, is not the part of your house in which anything much happens.  What they cannot see is you sitting on the couch in your underwear, having an argument with your spouse, picking your nose…and so on.  The lower shutter gives you the best of both worlds–privacy + natural light.

Our cat, not quite successfully keeping up with the sunlight

I realize with some dismay at this point that I have not had much to say about any actual view from a window, so let me add another lovely feature of historic windows.  I have never done a formal survey of how many houses downtown use shutters and how many do not.  But you can get a rough sense if you go for a walk through a neighborhood at night.  The houses with shutters give off a uniquely comforting kind of glow with the light that comes through the upper half of the windows.  You can tell what colors they’ve painted their walls and you might be able to glimpse just the top half of a painting or the details of their crown molding.  There’s something strangely satisfying and intriguing about being able to peek into half of a person’s house through a lighted window at night.

Of course, the windows look beautiful from the outside as well.  If you study them closely, you might find an original window, identifiable by the way in which the glass has gone all wavy and distorted over time.  But I appreciate the windows the most from the inside of my house.  Before moving into this house, the presence, absence or shape of windows wouldn’t have even occurred to me as important when deciding to buy a house.  I didn’t much think about having lovely windows, but now I don’t think I could live without them.

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