In 1962, two of Astoria’s early historic preservationists — Paul and Wilma Williamson — snatched the historic Hiram Brown house from destruction. Vines reached through its broken windows. The empty house was in danger of being condemned. During that era, the City of Astoria successfully demolished tens of dozens of buildings in the name of “revitalization,” but this would not be one of them.
Fifty-four years later, Katie Rathmell — Pacific Window Restoration, LLC — is embarking on the restoration of one of its key features: early and original windows.
The residence was constructed in 1852 for Capt. Hiram Brown and his wife Esther. In addition to bar piloting, Brown was involved in real estate and other business ventures. In 1866, he partnered with Christian Leinenweber, founding the Astoria Hemlock Tannery, across the street from the current Safeway. In 1873, he was one of four partners with John Badollet who established Astoria’s first salmon cannery, now Pier 39.
Although constructed in Adair’s Astoria, the Brown’s house was barged to Shively’s Astoria in 1862. The house is said to have been attached to a second house at that time. It remained in the Brown family through 1925. At some point, a Mrs. Chisholm operated a boarding house there. Years later, guests remembered her fine cooking. They also recalled viewing an aviary with plants and exotic birds on the former back porch.
Windows change from one era to another. Their sash vary in thickness and width; so do the profile and shape of their muntins (the piece of wood which divides panes of glass). The size and thickness of glass does, too.
Gothic style windows tend to be stretched out, with thinner, with more delicate features. Window sash on the Brown house are 1/8” to 1/4” thinner than later windows. And, they are hand-planed rather than machine-made. These subtle differences add up, and when they do, there is a noticeable difference between historic windows and modern replacement windows….hence the need to retain the original.
Rathmell has a Bachelor’s in biology and a Master’s in marine science. She was a research associate for the Center for Coastal Margin Observation & Prediction before attending historic preservation classes at Clatsop Community College. Today, she approaches window restoration with the deliberate mind of a scientist and the eye of a craftsperson. “I try to employ all aspects of these disciplines in my work,” she said.
“Cedar is soft,” explained Rathmell describing the narrow windows. “Everything is more fragile….they’re the oldest I’ve ever worked on.” She said the glazing (or window putty) is often the only thing holding the windows together. Yet, they are worth saving and can be restored to be fully functioning.
Rathmell started her project in the former aviary. She will remove each window sash from its opening, then remove its glass. She uses an infrared heater to strip its wood. A clear penetrating epoxy sealer (CPES) is applied to the wood as a binder. CPES is essential to those areas with rot.
She said these windows used pins, rather than sash weights, to hold them open. Those pins rusted, then spread rot through the tenons. She will remove the surrounding “punky” wood, then fill the gap with an epoxy filler. The windows are then finished with historically accurate linseed oil paint and putty.
“It’s painstaking,” she said of the process. “It’s nothing you can do on a production line.” Rathmell is assisted by Adam Dean, a graduate of Clatsop Community College’s historic preservation program.
Once resealed and repaired, historic windows can be reasonably competitive with the energy efficiency of new windows. Modern windows have the benefit of double panes. Historic Gothic windows do not have enough “meat” to support two panes of glass with an airspace between.
Rathmell is constructing exterior storm windows for all of the window openings on the Brown house. They will be attached from the top rail with stainless steel hooks latched to the exterior trim. Stays will be used to prop the attached windows open. In addition to increasing energy efficiency, the storm windows — which use UV glass — will reduce sun damage to interior furnishings.
It is not a huge philosophical leap to move from energy conservation to thinking about the consumption of material resources. “My biggest motivator to preserve and restore,” she said, “is to retain the incredible resources and craftsmanship that went into the construction of the houses in this area.”
Her commitment to retaining historic material is clear. “The wood is superior to anything we can get today, and it allows me to conserve precious resources.”
For more information about renovating an old home or commercial building, visit the Lower Columbia Preservation Society website at lcpsociety.com.