Windows are workhorses. We throw them open to let in the autumn breezes; slam them shut to silence 3 a.m. car alarms or the "hum" of Interstate 495. Eventually, we clean off the smudges with a squirt of Windex and start the abusive cycle all over again.
Windows rarely give us pause, unless a million-dollar view is involved: a glimpse of the glittering Potomac, the burnt umber foliage of Rock Creek Park, a monument in the distance. Then we take a moment to enjoy the sight. But that wasn't always the case.
Originally, windows themselves were prized possessions.
"In the Renaissance, they were so expensive that a wedding gift of a small window was appropriate," says Sandy Isenstadt, an assistant professor of architectural history at Yale University and author of "The Modern American House." "In England, there was a specific window tax. They were simply a luxury. Some people would even bring their windows with them when they moved."
In Colonial America, glass was just as precious. Although local glassworks existed, most of the material was imported from Europe until the 19th century. Because of the cost and the limits of early glassmaking, windows from the 1600s were small and unassuming. Made by hand onsite, they were fixed in place or featured a casement sash (the kind you crank open and closed).
Today's typical window -- known as the vertical-sliding or double-hung sash -- became popular in the early 18th century and stayed that way, with the number of panes going in and out of fashion.
In the 19th century, advances in the plate glass process, in which molten glass is passed through rollers, created less distortion and bigger spans. But it wasn't until the 20th century that the ribbon window (a series of horizontal windows separated only by mullions) and the glass curtain wall (essentially, one large window that envelopes an entire house or skyscraper) became possible -- and went on to become hallmarks of modern architecture.
"Windows aren't just accessories," says Alex Herrera, director of technical services at the New York Landmarks Conservancy, which produced a book called "Repairing Old and Historic Windows." "They are a character-defining feature."
The style of a building is very much determined by its windows -- think dormers in cozy cottages, sleek picture windows in mid-century ranch houses, oversize Palladians in McMansions. Fortunately, the Washington area provides specimens of every stripe for up-close inspection.
Why wouldn't you want to sneak a peek? Besides giving an architectural history lesson, windows can offer a glimpse into the hidden lives of friends, neighbors, even strangers. (Just ask Jimmy Stewart, who got an eyeful in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window.") But you can forget the binoculars. We've done the work and captured some of the most alluring windows in the area.
See how the well-heeled live by peering into the wooden windows of an ivy-covered manse in Georgetown. But it's just a glimpse -- ruched shades are drawn to keep out prying (and pedestrian) eyes.
In LeDroit Park, there's another grande dame -- albeit a bit more down-at-the heels -- featuring elaborate crown-like trim above the attic windows, a few of which have blue construction sheeting standing in for glass. The effect is as opulent as it is eerie. Is that the shadow of Norman Bates passing by?
Oculus windows punctuating the side elevation of a Victorian rowhouse also in LeDroit Park give off a Big Brother vibe. The windows really do seem like the eyes of the house.
On Colorado Avenue in Northwest, theMiddle Eastern ogees of a stately Mission residence offer a taste of the exotic. Classic Washington style can be found in a lineup of pristinely maintained rowhouses in Dupont Circle, each with its own bay window conjuring reading hour, catnaps and cups of tea.
Take a walk on the modern side in Southwest's River Park, designed by Charles Goodman in conjunction with Reynolds Metals. The signature element of the townhouses -- an aluminum-and-glass barrel-vault -- has its pluses and minuses. Says resident Max Robitaille, who lives in one of the townhouses: "It's hot as hell. And bright. You have to get up early -- there's no choice."
In the Palisades, a home designed by Bethesda-based architect Mark McInturff features a contemporary take on the turret. The steel-and-glass structure is a definite showstopper, but one wonders what exactly the homeowners are keeping watch for? A reservoir Nessie? Killer sunsets? Virginians?
The view is also king in the towering glass house Washington architect Travis Price designed for himself in Forest Hills. It is so transparent and so hunkered into the Rock Creek woodlands that you can barely see the house for the oak trees.
"I wanted no window," he explains. "I wanted as thin a differential between the indoors and out as possible. Inside this house, window, door and view are all the same thing." The end goal: "To float in the landscape like a monk in India -- hovering between nature and sky." Jealous much? Now, go on, put down that stone.
Alexa Yablonski is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Real Simple, Blueprint and USA Weekend. She can be reached at email@example.com.