Spend time marveling at Northeast architecture, and you’ll start to notice plenty of a certain oddity.
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 normal portrait-style windows, but they’re 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. Spooky. 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. Or 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 incapable of 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.
[pullquote]They are very agile.[/pullquote]
“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.”
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,” Baez insisted. “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. Then again…well, witches aren’t real.
An employee of Vermont’s Division of Historic Preservation brought up more compelling point in an interview with Vermont Public Radio: 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.
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 because 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 folklore, 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—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. Even forgiving those obvious issues, there’s another problem: Undertakers are under no obligation to put bodies into caskets before moving them, so why wouldn’t they simply move the bodies, sans casket? Doesn’t this legend assume that most people keep their caskets around for a fairly long period of time before their deaths?
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?
To find out, we asked architectural historian Walter Wheeler.
“The ‘witch windows’ are very common in Vermont,” Wheeler says. “That is because they are a typical solution to the need to get light in a second floor bedroom in a one or one-and-a-half story house that has an attached wing. It’s the only way to get a window of good size in the wall between the roof of the wing and that of the main part of the house. The alternative would be to make dormer windows, but that solution wasn’t favored among Vermonters.”
Dormer windows project vertically from roofs, but because many homes are tightly constructed, adding dormers isn’t always an option. Dormers 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, Wheeler says a builder simply decided to rotate a window to get as much window space as possible, since standard double-hung windows wouldn’t fit.
The design caught on. According to Kathryn Eddy of The Barre Montpelier Times Argus, the windows proved popular with Vermont homeowners for several reasons. First, they allow for decent ventilation, and they’re extremely inexpensive when compared with custom-built windows and dormer windows. They don’t require any real planning, and they can be simply tacked on towards the end of construction.
“Add it to the extensive list of reasons why Vermonters deserve their practical reputation and were going green long before it was the trend to do so,” Eddy wrote.
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 or standard double-hung windows. What began as a practical necessity has become a cool eccentricity of Vermont architecture.
If your home has Vermont windows, we’ve got good news and bad news.
The bad news: The windows can be somewhat troublesome features for homeowners, since their unique design can complicate siding and waterproofing projects. Horizontal siding meets the frame at an acute angle, which isn’t ideal, so homeowners need to take special care when choosing siding for homes with witch windows.
If your home has the windows and you hire contractors, you’ll also want to make sure they’ve worked with diagonally oriented windows before (and make sure that they’re not witches, just in case they need to enter your home).
With that said, that’s about the only major drawback. If your home has witch windows, don’t worry; they’re perfectly functional, and they shouldn’t diminish the value of your property. In fact, they add light and ventilation, so they’re a practical feature.
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 show off the ingenuity of the state’s residents.
It’s worth noting that witch windows aren’t common throughout Vermont; they’re more common in the state’s central and northern regions. They’re also more common on older farmhouses from the 19th century, which gives some additional weight to the “leftover building materials” theory. Some builders still incorporate Vermont windows into newer homes, but this is fairly rare, according to blog Vermontpedia.
So, what should you call them? That’s basically up to you. As for the proper terminology, “witch window” is slightly more popular than “Vermont window” or “coffin window,” according to a quick Google Trends search. Real estate agents tend to prefer “Vermont,” since it sounds more appealing, but they’ll occasionally use “witch windows” to add an air of grandiosity to their sales pitches.
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.