The Houston Fire Museum is working with Rachel Paxton, owner of Plum Alley Windowcraft, to restore the building’s historic windows. The windows are being removed in phases and taken offsite for restoration. This is an important component to preserving “Old 7’s,” ensuring it will last for an additional 133 years.
How long does it take to restore one window?
Typically, with a window in a condition such as those at the fire museum, the process will take 7 weeks start to finish. The Museum windows are being restored in phases. Many of the fire station sashes needed rot repairs and epoxy work to preserve as much solid original material as possible, adding to the timeline. These windows had been worked on numerous times over the years and many of the previous “quick fixes” had to be redone correctly for the life of the window to truly be extended another 100 years.
What has been a challenge with this restoration?
Much of the organic glass in the second-floor windows had been replaced with extremely heavy and dangerous thick glass (plate glass) at some point. Getting this glass removed was a big challenge due to it breaks into giant daggers if an edge is chipped, and it was all installed extremely poorly. We were able to remove all the plate glass safely and return to the original weighted hand-rolled glass, which now makes the sashes able to open and close with ease and puts less pressure on the frames, extending the life of the windows even further.
Lots of original hardware had been removed and it was a bit of a riddle figuring out what hardware originally existed and how the sashes functioned. After removing all the paint, we found shadow lines of the old hardware which helped clue us in on sizing, and we were able to find matching replica hardware to reinstall! Good hardware is like jewelry, a final touch that brings the entire window together.
Anything unusual that sets these windows apart from others this age or even windows today?
These sashes were “commercial grade” and were extra thick, which meant more meat on the bone for us to work with when doing repairs. The wood is heart pine, and the growth rings indicate the trees were around 100 years old when they were cut down to use for these sashes. We sacrificed miles and miles of mature forests to build homes and windows in the south, and It’s a privilege to save something that was built with such amazing quality wood. There’s absolutely no reason to throw away this impeccable old growth wood and cut down any more trees, and thankfully everyone working on this project agrees!
The stained-glass windows were fun to dissect and study as well. Over time, certain colors and textures of glass have been discontinued, and as glass broke, they had to match it as close as possible with what was available. So, we have an entire 123 years of different kinds of crazy textured glass in these stained-glass windows now. It’s fun to follow along and see the history of the window, knowing what year each piece was replaced.
The original handmade brick used in the construction of “Old 7’s” came from Cedar Bayou Brick in Baytown, a facility that has long since been closed. The bricks were made using two parts topsoil, one part clay, and water from their namesake: Cedar Bayou. In the late 1800s the bricks were transported across the bay on schooners, and were often delivered to building sites using mule-drawn wagons.
The exterior of “Old 7’s” was covered in stucco in the 1930s; one of the preservation goals is to remove the stucco and showcase the original Cedar Bayou brick. This aspect of the restoration will be challenging and costly as it requires the stucco to be chiseled off by hand to properly preserve the brick. The north and south walls have been restored, and efforts will soon commence on the front of the building. The cost of this portion of the preservation is $712,500.
The Museum is fortunate to have several of its original windows. The masonry surrounding the windows needs to be repaired, and the windows also need to be restored. The lead architect for the Houston Fire Museum’s restoration project was able to locate a stockpile of original Cedar Bayou bricks. The windows will be removed and taken off-site for restoration. The bricks surrounding the windows that can be saved will be repointed, and those that are damaged will be replaced with bricks from the found stockpile.