I Believe in Hilda Dent

A few months ago, we wrote about our adventure going before the Architectural Review Board. We were seeking permission to renovate our sunroom. The room almost certainly was once open to the elements — or perhaps screened in — and once featured a rear-facing door (long since bricked in to make a nice bookcase). At some point, a past owner decided to put in windows, but they didn’t make very good choices about what to install. Some haphazard wood frames were put up, with a few cheap aluminum crank windows for aeration. When we moved in, we discovered these were basically sieves to the outside world, aluminum warped, hand cranks missing, weather stripping shriveled, sunlight streaming in. We also discovered that the sunroom wasn’t hooked into the heating and air system, which was probably for the best (considering the overall leakiness). We applied some caulk and reconciled ourselves to using the space as a quasi-indoor zone, mostly for storage. We stashed our recycling in there, along with a few board games and paperback novels, and we saved our pennies.

A few years ago we attended a talk by Hilda Dent, of Old House Specialists, about the importance of holding on to your old windows. Even if you don’t know Hilda, you’ve probably seen her work. Her team did the City Hall windows during its amazing recent renovation. Hilda and crew also did the facade of the building that houses Sous La Terre – what used to be a bit of an eyesore is now part of downtown’s new look. We’ve been looking to get on her dance card for this project for a year or so, and everything fell into place over the last six weeks. First, Hilda came over to see the place. We agreed that we wanted a period restoration, with real wood framed double-hung windows. Our house was built in 1930. Luckily, Hilda had some salvaged windows from a demolished house that seemed like they’d be a good fit for our space. Once we’d agreed on materials, Hilda made some drawings that helped us visualize the project and helped us get through the aforementioned ARB process. The next few weeks didn’t see any action here on site, as Hilda and her crew were stripping, finishing and glazing the windows for placement.

Once they were ready, we saw a crew at the house within the week. Demolition was seamless; installation a little less so. After all these years, we have learned at least one thing about our beloved old house: Not an inch is square or level. The windows went in; they went in again; there were shims arranged while we learned about all the inner workings of windows. We saw window weights (which are awesome) fit inside the frame of your house so the windows can open and close with rope. We learned about glazing, and how it takes a long time to set, but stops panes from rattling. We watched as Hilda and her crew turned our warped and rickety aluminum shanty of a sunroom into a beautiful, airy showpiece. We hope to spend many summer days sitting out there drinking lemonade and writing.

As a final nod to the transformation, we removed an old dirty awning from the front of the house. The resulting effect showcases the new windows and brightens the front of the house considerably.

It was finished last week. The finishing touches seemed to take forever, and were almost frighteningly elaborate. Hilda showed us how to clean a window – the person inside wipes side to side, while the person outside works up and down. This way you know whether a smudge is on the outside or the inside. There were so many little parts to sand and prime and paint, and somehow they made all the pieces seem as if they were always part of our old house rather than new additions.

Living in older Midtown Montgomery houses means that there are constantly little projects to work on. Every one that we have undertaken has been in an effort to improve the experience of living in our house, while keeping with the period flourishes that give it (and the other houses in our neighborhood) so much character and charm.

We wish that we had the time, knowledge and skill to do these kinds of projects on our own. But we’re thrilled to be lucky enough to be able to hire a professional that shares our values (historic preservation) and an incredible attention to detail. When you see someone being exacting about a project, shaving a piece of wood down a few centimeters at a time, you really gain an appreciation for the craft that makes Midtown’s historical homes such enduring (and celebrated) features of our community.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, four fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.


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