I enjoy strolling around Old Town Alexandria and looking at the lovely historic homes. Here's what I can't figure out: None of these houses have curtains on their ground-floor windows. I don't understand. Can they not afford curtains after making their mortgage payments? Don't misunderstand me. I enjoy peering into the windows to see how they decorate. But I wonder: Why no curtains? Isn't that a security problem, in addition to making climate control more difficult? For that matter, I don't think I've ever seen people on the lower levels of the historic houses. Clearly I've put way more thought into this than the subject warrants, but I'd love it if you could track this down. As far as I can tell it's not a city zoning requirement, and I couldn't find any homeowners' association requirements.
Julie Reynolds, Washington
The first thing Answer Man must do when he decides to take on a question is determine whether the question is in fact true. There's no use answering a question that turns out to hinge on a false premise. It wastes time and irritates readers.
So Answer Man went to Old Town and started peering into windows. He jotted a few notes into his notebook: "208 S. Pitt St., interior shutters, no curtains; 408 Duke St., curtains; 214 S. Royal St., wooden interior shutters, pulldown blinds and curtains."
Thus it would be incorrect to say that there are no curtains in Old Town Alexandria. Rules regarding the alteration of historic houses apply to only the outside, not the inside. But there is some truth to what Julie has noticed: The interiors of many of the neighborhood's historic homes are extremely visible to passersby.
Before we explore that, let's explore this: Were curtains common in Colonial days? No, says Mary Ruth Coleman, director of historic Carlyle House. "Very few people had what we would call window treatments," she said. "John Carlyle had only one set [of curtains] in the whole household, and that was in the bedchamber."
What there were instead of curtains were internal shutters. Whenever possible, you wanted these shutters open. You needed the light. Carlyle House may have been the grandest manse in town, but it had only nine candlesticks in its inventory. Candles were very expensive, and electricity was something used to shock Ben Franklin.
Fast-forward 200 years, and we see that many Colonial townhouses in Alexandria still have some sort of shutter, usually what we would call a plantation shutter, on the lower half of the windows. These often are left open, creating a sort of tableau, as if the owner had just wandered off to post a letter.
Take for example the handsome, pale yellow house on the corner of Prince and Fairfax streets. The shades were pushed back, and through massive windows Answer Man could spy: a dining room table topped by a lace tablecloth and a vase of white roses; crystal decanters catching the light; a painting in a gilt frame; a Tiffany-style floor lamp; a Bose stereo with a stack of CDs on it, including an album by Rod "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" Stewart.
I asked the house's owner, Lin McAfee, if she ever felt on display in her house, like an animal at the zoo.
"It would be crazy for me to say that I didn't feel that way in the beginning," said Lin, who moved to the house two years ago from 21/2 acres in Salisbury, Md. "But generally it's a quick glance that people take, and it doesn't make you feel uncomfortable."
Lin said that when she has company over for dinner, she always gives them options: Do they want her to shut the shutters so they can have some privacy, or do they mind if the shutters are open?
"I've never had one person ask me to shut the windows," she said. "The only time that it's a little uncomfortable is when somebody puts their forehead on the window."
The display quality of Alexandria is due to the design of the townhouses, said city archaeologist Pam Cressey. Compare Old Town with another historic Washington area neighborhood, Georgetown. The Colonial residents of Georgetown were wealthier, said Pam, their houses grander. The front doors of most tony Georgetown townhouses are up several steps. Passersby can't look in the windows, unless they've brought their stilts.
Alexandria, however, had a more economically mixed population. Most of the houses aren't quite so grand, and they're entered from street level, creating a sort of fishbowl effect.
(It isn't only living rooms that people stare into. Joe Reeder lives a few blocks away from Lin McAfee. When he bought his 18th-century house on Prince Street, it had a high wall around the garden. He had part of it removed and a gate put in. "People just stand at the gate and stare" into the garden, he said.)
Of course, today's Alexandrians don't leave their shutters -- or curtains if they have them -- open all the time. Just as in Colonial times, residents of Old Town will cover the windows to keep hot sun out or warm air in.
As for the oglers, that's part of the charm, although, said Carlyle House's Mary Ruth Coleman, "You have to be careful about walking around in your nightgown in Old Town."
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