When Donald Jonas Jr. — whom everyone calls “Jonas” — lived in Coleman Highlands, he started doing “list work” on neighbors’ homes.
“I’d go to a house, and they’d have a list of things that needed to be done,” Jonas said. He developed a set of skills working on antique houses and turned it into his full-time business. His focus on preservation has turned him toward a blog (howtohaveahouse.com) and the public speaking circuit.
Jonas shared tips for living in antique houses, particularly how to handle old, pulley-system windows.
Q. Why should you keep an old window?
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A. Antique windows are literally lasting for 100 years or more. When you keep an old window in a house, you are preserving history, and there’s a real strong preservation movement in the Midwest.
Keeping an antique window in a house preserves an antique machine. It’s a simple machine. It can be rebuilt completely successfully, especially if they don’t have a lot of dry rot or water damage from condensation.
When you keep an antique window in place, you also preserve the original sill, which is usually thicker and heavier than newer ones, and you don’t tear up the hole and stick something in there that might not last.
Q. What makes people put in the new windows?
A. People get freaked out because the rope breaks, and then you have to use a stick to prop it open. One of the few things that fails on an antique window is a piece of rope. Gravity can also make the rub rails uneven, but the top sash can be adjusted.
You can replace the rope. Once you get the ropes reattached, as long as the pulleys are operating correctly, and they almost always are, the mechanics of the machine are completely restored.
Q. Can an old window be just as energy-efficient as a new one?
A. They can come really close. A super-high-quality manufactured window with low “e” glass is hard to beat for airtight and solar-radiant barrier, but that is a very high-quality window.
In the Metropolitain Energy Center “Project Living Proof” house on Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard, where I restored the windows, they were able to improve the overall energy efficiency of that house by 80 percent.
Q. What about the old storm windows?
A. Wooden storms on the outside of a house are a dream come true. When you buy the (hinged) antique hardware and prop them out in the summertime they look beautiful. And because they are a wood frame instead of an aluminum frame, they actually have a better energy value.
Q. What advice do you have for homeowners who want to try their own repairs?
A. Go for it. If a homeowner really wants to try this, first, keep the window original. Go back with ropes and weights. Do not use spring lifts and aftermarket lifts. Leave those out. Get the old rope and pulley working.
If you go to YouTube, you can see videos of guys taking windows apart and putting them back together. Cut the woodwork off, do not pry it. You will tear up the woodwork if you try to pry it off and most of that cannot be replaced, but you are only one tool away from being able to cut that woodwork off and get at the mechanics.
I use a multi-tool (with a thin blade to cut through the nails attaching the wood). It’s the same thing they use in a hospital to cut a cast off. It’s very accurate, super noisy. Always use eye, hearing and face protection.
Never work on an antique house without a respirator on because of airborne particulates.
Q. How do you handle lead-based paint?
A. Don’t disturb it. When you start working on the window, go to the EPA website and learn how to contain it so it’s not spread throughout your house. When you scrape, sand or chip that paint, you are disturbing it. So take precautions.
If you do not disturb the lead, there is nothing wrong with lead-based paint. I think it’s why antique windows don’t rot out. There are several coats of lead-based paint.
Q. What other parts of antique houses that often get replaced should homeowners consider restoring instead?
A. Quit throwing out antique doors.
People should also keep their mortise lock sets. They rarely fail. The reason they stop working is that they get painted so heavily. Learn to fix them. Get them stripped. Blow the dead bugs out of it. Also don’t replace the antique hinges.
The trick is to remind yourself that you live in an antique house. If you repair the door, and it doesn’t look perfect, so what? It’s an antique house.
Lathe and plaster walls are also worth keeping. Lathe and plaster walls are quieter than Sheetrock, you have 3/8 an inch lathe and then about 3/8 inch of what’s called scratch coat. That gives you an amazingly thick, strong wall.
Q. What does “how to have a house” mean?
A. You have to learn how to have a house and not let a house have you. The trick to having an old house is to take control of the situation and to learn your own house thoroughly so when you call an electrician or plumber or structural guy, you know what you’re talking about before you get on the phone.
People often just don’t know their old houses, and they are unique. If you drive a 1957 DeSoto every day to work, you need to find a garage that can work on a 1957 DeSoto, and you’re probably going to be in a club, and you’re going to do research, and you are going to take your own energy and passion into having an antique car. An old house is the same thing.
You really need to associate yourself with someone who believes in your old house and wants to preserve it.