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Working-class stained glass offers a window into the past

They’re called “piano windows” or “transom windows” and were a hallmark of upward-mobility sensibilities, an aspirational gesture for people enjoying the fruits of boomtown St. Paul.

Stained glass windows were a hallmark of upward-mobility sensibilities, an aspirational gesture for people enjoying the fruits of boomtown St. Paul.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

For seven years I lived in an old house built by a distant relative, a Norwegian named Ole who erected the place during the first years of the 20th century. The house was quirky, to say the least, with floors that slanted, acute corners and, until quite recently, walls lacking any insulation other than newspapers placed under the plaster. Like many houses in St. Paul’s working-class North End, it started small and grew as time and pocketbooks permitted. Eventually a kitchen was added onto the back and a raised porch extended over the backyard (since removed due to impending gravity). One noteworthy detail: a charred rooftop beam in the back pantry, scavenged from a downtown hotel fire and re-used by the industrious ancestor. Back then, people got workable lumber any way they could, and you couldn’t beat a “fire sale” where beams were free for the taking.

The most unusual part of the house for me was the stained-glass window. It floated in the front room — originally, the parlor — resting atop a large piece of plate glass. The small window wasn’t elaborate, a clear pane surrounded by smaller rectangles of colorful glass dyed in basic shades of red, yellow, blue, and green. Each morning, the window transformed sunlight into rainbows, patches of color that drifted around the room, bringing the patchwork floor to life.

I always found the window to be an odd detail in an otherwise spartan house. At the time, it must surely have been an extravagance — why did Ole bother? — and I sometimes pondered what this window might have meant to early immigrants.

I’ve since moved, but have begun seeing these windows all over town in houses of a certain age. They’re called “piano windows” or “transom windows” and were a hallmark of upward-mobility sensibilities, an aspirational gesture for people enjoying the fruits of boomtown St. Paul. You’ll see them in even the most threadbare walls of turn-of-the-century homes, an overlooked fragment of the past.

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“Ah, yes, the piano window,” said Christine Bouleware, who works as a preservation policy expert for the City of St. Paul. “It may have a clear pane of glass or divided lights of leaded glass or stained glass. The piano window is everywhere; I’ve seen it in homes from the 1890s to the 1930s. Some are fixed and cannot be opened while others come grouped with inswing-casement windows on the ends.”

In fact, I’ve seen exact copies of my old North End window all over the city, along with similar varieties with minute differences. I sometimes imagine a window salesman wandering St. Paul at the turn of the century, driving a donkey cart door to door, enticing developers or craftspeople. “Stained glass is a touch of class!” he might call out, sing-song like a peanut vendor at a ballgame.

(Much more likely is that these windows were mail-ordered from places like the Sears catalog, which began selling “kit homes” in the early 20th century.)

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
I’ve seen exact copies of my old North End window all over the city, along with similar varieties with barely perceptible differences.

The link to the past goes deeper than the early days of St. Paul. Far back in European culture, stories seen through glass offered a medium that transcended the traditional trappings of education.

“Stained glass has been called ‘the Bible in stone,’ ” said Bob Roscoe, an architect and preservationist in Minneapolis. “The genesis of stained glass began in the Middle Ages, almost exclusively used for liturgical purposes in Christian churches and synagogues. Transom windows constitute the major form of pictorial art in lesson form to have survived from that era.”

In some ways, the  connection between those famous religious panes and hardscrabble colored windows seems largely symbolic. But perhaps these small bits of color, a call-out to the churches farther up the street, were part of the allure for the religious immigrants of early St. Paul.

The technical details, according to Roscoe: The glass was typically colored by adding metallic salts into its molten substance during manufacturing, though there is also a less intensive method where glass is colorfully painted and then fired in a kiln.

Compared to many later examples of piano windows, my old window was almost clownishly simple. According to Roscoe, the basic pattern — a central clear pane surrounded by colored squares — was common in working-class homes.

“Transom windows borrow the term from horizontally oriented windows above entry doors off hallways in 19th Century apartment buildings,” Roscoe told me. “In houses, these flat glazed panels invariably were placed over large fixed windows at the front main room of the house or sometimes on the side in bay windows.

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MinnPost photos by Bill Lindeke
Transom windows, left, versus a piano window, right.

There’s a slight distinction to be made between transom windows, which sit atop doorways or larger windows, and piano windows. The latter are typically set off by themselves, and get their name because an upright piano, another marker of bourgeois sensibility, would have sat just beneath it. 

Courtesy of the National Park Service
Structure of leaded stained glass windows

Another detailed distinction is the one between muntins and cames. For transom windows in working-class or vernacular homes, the colored panes were often held together by muntins, thin strips of wood, whereas the often more ornate (curved) glasswork in middle-class transoms used leaded cames.

“Thin lead strips called cames held glazing pieces,” Roscoe said. “The flexibility of a came derives from the relatively soft lead material, which allows curvilinear shapes of glass elements which occasionally provided pictorial compositions within the panel.”

Wandering around St. Paul, I began seeing these windows everywhere. They range from the archetypical piano window set high in a wall to small transoms mounted above doorways or complex arrangements of five or more windows.

During preservation efforts, these windows receive a great deal of attention, and even today, catalogs are full of potential replacements. I uncovered an example from the Dayton’s Bluff Preservation District on the east side, a “one-and-a-half-story vernacular cottage” with one “piano-style window” that dates to 1884. Here’s how the official city report [PDF] to the Heritage Preservation Commission describes it:

“The existing piano window is on a non-original, but early addition to the residence and is not an original feature of the property. Details on the interior trim show that the opening may have been divided into multiple fixed-lights or in-swing casements. The installation of a new, three-light window in the existing piano window opening complies with the guideline as they are not proposed on the primary elevation and are of an appropriate style and size.”

(The commission approved the changes three years ago, and, as of the Google Maps drive-by, the house appeared to be still undergoing renovation.)

So often, preservation efforts focus on high-end architecture: homes of the moneyed classes, singular mansions, or elaborate office buildings. It’s rare to uncover preservation efforts aimed at more modest refinements, homes where a window like this might have been one of few embellishments. Most of the time, these buildings aren’t preserved; rather, they persevere through benign neglect. (The homes along Milwaukee Avenue, in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood, are a notable exception.)

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Transom-windowed homes on Bellows St.

Near my current apartment on St. Paul’s west side, some of the north-south side streets still retain clusters of buildings that date back to the time of the original platting of the land, in the 1870s and 1880s. The other day, two blocks from my apartment building, I discovered a row of these homes, four identical one-and-1½-story houses placed within arms’ reach of each other, each dating back to 1886. Above the parlor window of each of them rested a matching colored-glass transom, the identical pattern to my old house 5 miles to the north.

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Today, each of these windows has aged in a different way, gathering dust and personality in a decidedly unfancy neighborhood. Above one sits an honor certificate from the local high school, a suitable homage to a century of St. Paul aspirational dreams.

After writing most of this column, I went past the old North End house to snap a picture of the window that had entranced me, and I was startled to find the colored window gone. My industrious cousin who now lives there has been fixing up the place, replacing slumping porches and refinishing the slapdash surfaces. In place of the old window was a large piece of modern double-pane glass, a sensible sacrifice to insulation.