Rick observes the building settling. “The way the window functions is of primary importance but the way it looks is more critical that being on the bubble.”

She’s been standing there on South Van Ness, five houses south of 24th Street, for more than a hundred years. To this day, the yellow Edwardian at 1335-1333 is a gift to the street. The entry porch, curved bays, and those windows — those elegant curved windows — have looked down over a street that has changed its name and been graced by all sorts of transport. But even the most gorgeous eventually submit to the elements and time. The windows were failing.

Over the years the wavy curved glass had been broken, replaced with plastic, or cracked and left to breath in the winter winds. It was time to have “some work done.” Bondo and paint — the carpenter’s equivalent of Botox — no longer worked. The old girl needed completely new sashes.

I’ve watched the changes since 1998, and still live in the ground floor unit.

From time to time, straight windows have been used to replace the more expensive curved sashes. But in this case it just wasn’t right. Sure, it works — the flat windows are well-engineered and would even qualify for energy rebates. But straightening out the curves of this old girl would have been an insult.

The real thing, complete with the curved glass and top sash ogee, is what the statuesque structure demanded, and nothing else. The new sashes needed to articulate with the counterweights often abandoned inside the walls. They needed to glide up and down on the original wooden tracks. Each sash’s bare wood needed to be exposed so it would tighten up in the winter and slide freely in the summer. Those failed windows needed to be replaced with the real thing.

Curved sashes aren’t available at the big box stores. Even most window manufacturers can’t supply curved replacements. Why? The building has settled a bit. The opening, although basically square, is a little off. Manufactured products simply wouldn’t work. Each opening needed to be filled with a sash uniquely shaped to fit.

Fortunately, right down the street from our lady of South Van Ness is a custom wooden window maker.  As one would expect, Arellano’s has been owned and operated by a family of master woodworkers who love historic reproductions. They can make the replacements. Arellano’s Wooden Windows not only knows how to craft and install curved sashes, they are experts on the old structures that house them.

Rick Arellano removed and measured each old sash. He told the story of their design. He showed how the small piece of wood between the two sashes allowed them to be removed but blocked the draft. Then he showed how the curved windows needed be removed to the outside of the curved bay, where the circumference is greater. It was neat how one side of the exterior molding was designed to be removed. The window replacement was an elegant dance between man, machine, wood and glass.

New sashes were crafted to individually match the existing opening. In fact, they were slightly oversized, so that they could be trimmed and shaped to make the fit precise. A template of the original sash was used to size the new frame. Then very careful measurements were taken of the opening in the new sash. These measurements were sent to a glass fabricator in Los Angeles, who cut and laminated the two layers of glass with a special sound-deadening rubber.

The curved windows overlook South Van Ness. At some times of day the traffic sounds can be considerable, and on a really good night you can hear karaoke echoing from the Napper Tandy on the corner of 24th.

The old windows let a considerable amount of that “charm” drift into the living space. The new windows employ a special type of glass (STC glass). The laminate provides some thermal insulation and a much-needed element of sound blocking. After the new windows were installed, the guy on the top floor said, “I had a hard time sleeping the first couple nights…it was just too quiet.”

The STC glass was glazed into the sashes and painted. Actually, the edges were left unpainted to be later coated with beeswax, to insure a smooth slide. Then the painstaking shaping began. Each sash was shaped to fit neatly into its opening. The process was incremental. Marking, cutting, then fitting was repeated until the sash fit perfectly.

The special glass made the weight of each new sash twice that of the original. Rick had to lift each into place, mark it and cut it — over and over again. These things weigh almost 50 pounds. “I only want to do three windows at a time so I have some time to recover,” he said. “It’s like playing a sport.” He made it look easy.

Each sash was weighed. The original cast iron counterweights were augmented with additional lead weights. The counterbalance weight had to be perfect so the window wouldn’t creep open or shut. Again this delicate task looked simple as Rick strung up the proper weights.

Once the top sash was placed, the small wooden runner or parting bead was placed between the top or front sash and the one beneath. Once one set of sashes was installed, the other three were cut and fit so the line created by the bottom of the top sash and top of the bottom sash aligned left to right. This was no easy task, as the building had settled. Rick was a master at matching the middle without creating too much or too little “reveal” on the bottom sash as you move right to left.

Once the windows were in and working, Rick installed period design brass hardware. The wonderful clunking sound of the counterbalance inside the wall as you open the windows remained. Perfect, just like the Mission District cutting-edge technology that looks a hundred years old.

I swear, as I walked down the stairs and looked up, she said, “Say, do my new windows make my bays look big?” “No, oh no, you look simply marvelous, and will for another hundred years.”

George Lipp

Photographer and writer living in the mission

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