Boston Home Winter 2010: Salem's Windows

Founded in 1626 (that’s four years before the Puritans settled Boston), the city of Salem is a history buff’s dream. Visitors may flock to the Salem Witch Museum and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace, but another lesson in local lore can be had for free. From Federal-style houses designed by Samuel McIntire (one of America’s first architects) to early 20th-century Beaux Arts manses, the well-preserved homes lining Chestnut, Federal, and Essex streets showcase 300 years of architectural history. Their windows, often made of centuries-old glass, feature some of the richest details of all.

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Tracing the panes’ provenance reveals a historical hodgepodge. “Salem windows tend to resemble a jumble sale,” says Alison Hardy, a North Shore restoration specialist. “A room may have windows from several different periods, from 1740s English-made panes to domestic art deco ones.” She attributes the mix of styles to Yankee thrift: Because colonial glass was imported, it was pricey. Homeowners, therefore, would often salvage windows from burned or abandoned buildings rather than buy new ones.

Hardy, who owns Topsfield-based Window Woman of New England, is one of a growing number of preservationists who advocate saving these historic windows. The frames, made of dense, old-growth timber, will outlast any modern replacement, she says. And thanks to old-fashioned handmade construction, they’re also more delicately detailed. “If we replace them,” says Hardy, “we lose a piece of history.”