Spend time marveling at East Coast architecture, and you'll start to notice them.
Realtors often refer to them as "Vermont windows," since they're primarily found—you guessed it—on older Vermont homes. Some people find them oddly beautiful; to others, they're simply odd.
Vermont windows are simply normal portrait-style windows, angled diagonally or horizontally so that the long edge of the window is parallel to the roof line. If you don't see them regularly, they look pretty bizarre and out of place. They might even be mistaken for shoddy construction.
But one of the strangest aspects of Vermont windows is their alternate name: witch windows. Where does the terminology come from—and what's the proper term for this architectural oddity?
Vermont natives often cite an old superstition.
According to legend, witches enter homes by flying in. For some reason, they're either unable or unwilling to fly at an angle.
That may be because the windows form a cross-like angle with the roofline. It might also be because witches simply aren't great at flying at strange angles on their broomsticks. Maybe it's due to some sort of technical issue with broomstick engineering (we're pretty sure that Bewitched covered that at some point).
There's even a precedent for this type of superstitious architecture: Some Hawaiian homes are built with their doors purposely misaligned to prevent ghosts from roaming freely throughout the house. Ghosts, it seems, are notoriously bad at walking in diagonal lines, so maybe witches have the same problem.
Fortunately, a reporter at WCAX tracked down a real-life witch in Burlington, Vermont to get some answers. After all, if you're going to do a story on witchcraft, it's best to go straight to the source.
"I've never even heard of the term," said Julio Baez, who considers himself an Eclectic Pagan Witch. "I've been a practicing witch for 25 years now and this is the first time I've ever talked about witches windows."
Granted, we doubt that witches get regular questions about any type of architecture. Still, reporter Alex Hirsch decided to press the issue, asking Baez whether witches could fly sideways. We should probably mention that this was a Halloween piece—Hirsch wasn't exactly shooting for a Pulitzer Prize.
"If you watch Harry Potter and they play Quidditch they go in every which way direction. They are very agile. I don't think you could stop a witch from going through a slanted window unless they were overweight like me."
We love a witch with a sense of humor, although the Harry Potter films might not be the most accurate representation of real witches.
Architectural historian Britta Tonn brought up a more compelling point: If Vermont builders actually believed the superstition, why wouldn't they angle every window in the house? Surely, witches could simply enter through one of the other windows—or the front door, for that matter. There's no real reason for witches to confine themselves to the attic.
We hate it when common sense ruins a good architectural legend. Sadly, there's no evidence that anyone ever truly believed the witch superstition, even if the etymology comes with an irresistible story.
We should mention that we stumbled across another, simpler explanation for the term. At some point, an out-of-state visitor asked a Vermonter what the locals call the windows. The Vermonter responded, "Which window?" and the legend was born.
Yeah, we don't really buy that explanation, either.
There's another name for this architectural marvel: "coffin windows."
That term comes with a theory of its own, and it's slightly more believable since it doesn't involve anything supernatural. It is, however, just a bit macabre, so if you didn't want to read about coffins today, you ought to skip to the next section.
According to Vermont folk lore, dying people would often spend their last days in their bedrooms, which typically were in the upper stories of their homes. When they passed on, the undertakers would have to move their bodies, but narrow hallways and staircases made this a difficult feat. Eventually, someone built coffin windows that would allow the undertaker's cargo to pass easily out of the home.
While that's another interesting story, it doesn't carry much weight (pardon the pun). We can't imagine a builder incorporating the eventual death of a building's tenants into his design since that would be a fairly difficult sell to the homeowner. Besides, there's nothing convenient about passing a coffin through an attic window, and most Vermont windows don't even open all the way.
The name "coffin windows" probably popped up for a much less interesting reason: The slim windows look sort of like coffins. As with "witch windows," it's a disappointing but believable explanation.
So, why do Vermont windows exist, and why are they only found in Vermont?
The simple answer is that the windows maximize the amount of light and ventilation in attics. Vermont homes rarely have dormer windows, which project vertically from roofs, and because many homes are tightly constructed, adding dormers isn't always an option. Dormer windows require a decent amount of space, and for older homes, they probably seemed like an expensive, impractical luxury.
Additionally, many older Vermont homes have gone through regular renovations and additions, so space is at a premium. At some point, a builder simply decided to rotate a window to get as much window space as possible, and the design caught on. The windows allow for decent ventilation, and they're extremely inexpensive. They don't require any real planning, and they can be simply tacked on towards the end of construction.
The windows are also called "lazy windows," insinuating that at some point, a builder decided to turn an old window sideways rather than make a brand-new window for a project. That's a believable explanation, and it fits with the likely purpose of the windows. Plus, the windows do sort of look like they're taking a lazy Sunday nap. Still, the laziness explanation doesn't always hold true; some Vermont windows are remarkably ornate and well built, sometimes more so than dormers. In any case, they can be troublesome features for homeowners, since the windows' unique design can complicate siding and waterproofing projects.
As for why the strange windows didn't catch on outside of Vermont, that's anyone's guess.
Perhaps the strange look is a hard sell—or perhaps the more impressive appearance of dormer windows led to the Vermont window's obsolescence. People in other states usually aren't aware of the existence of Vermont windows, and they can be a jarring sight, at least at first. Still, Vermonters love them, as they sort of show off the ingenuity of the state's residents.
So, what should you call them? That's basically up to you. As for the proper terminology, "
If your home has these windows, however, you're free to call them whatever you choose. Just be sure to lock them up at night to avoid visits from lopsided witches (and, apparently, the cast of the Harry Potter films).