Every so often, some moldering architectural idea rises up from the dead and come back for an encore. It’s especially common these days, what with the revival of traditional architecture. We tend to forget what brought these ideas to a merciful end, and why it sometimes defies reason to resurrect them. Windows with divided lites—what architects call “muntins”—is one of them.
|Medieval windows were divided up|
with muntins because they had to be—
glass wasn't made any bigger.
I’ll say it right up front: The new windows in any home remodel should match the originals, and that goes doubly for homes whose windows have muntins. Yet for most new work, muntins simply don’t make sense.
Dividing windows up with wooden muntins is a practice that harks back to the beginnings of the glass industry, when it was impractical to produce sheets of glass larger than about one foot square. Only the wealthy could afford glass in their windows (the poor had to settle for parchment), and even these had to be composed of dozens and sometimes hundreds of individual panes.
|Medieval glass was so costly that it came to be flaunted|
as a status symbol—such as here at Hardwick Hall,
Derbyshire, England (completed 1597).
Hence, window size became a status symbol by the late 1500s. In England, the manor house of Bess of Hardwick became so renowned for its enormous, intricately leaded windows that the couplet “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall” was immortalized in an English nursery rhyme.
However, sheet glass manufacturing techniques progressed so rapidly during the Industrial Revolution that by 1851, the English were able to produce some 900,000 square feet of glass for a single building—the famed Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park—in the space of nine months.
|Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, England's glass industry|
became mechanized, making it feasible to construct
buildings such as London's famed Crystal Palace.
Alas, American glass production lagged well behind England’s until mid-Victorian times, so the average Yank continued to make do with multipaned windows until well into the 1800s. As such, muntins were not a decorative feature but a necessary evil which people would have been thrilled to be rid of. In fact, they did get rid of them as soon as it was practicable: that’s why the majority of Victorian home styles have windows with a single pane of glass.
Only toward the end of the 19th century did the twin forces of Colonial Revival architecture and the Arts and Crafts movement resurrect the use of muntins. Then, that most bombastic of Victorian styles, Queen Anne, once again featured window muntins, albeit ones forming a narrow colored glass border around a large central pane.
|"Sandwich grid" divided lites are sealed between|
the double glazing, producing a uniquely unconvincing
two-dimensional effect. Why bother?
A number of subsequent home styles featured divided lites after that—most notably, the California Bungalow. Yet the arrival of modern architecture would soon ensure that great sweeps of monolithic glass would prevail for the next generation.
Architecture is nothing if not cyclical, however. Today we can produce glass for a song, yet we choose to carve up our windows anyhow—or at least pretend to. That may seem warm and fuzzy until a few years pass and homeowners realize just how much maintenance those muntins require. A lower-maintenance alternative, the ubiquitous “sandwich grid” consisting of divider strips placed between the layers of double-pane glass, is even more pointless: the look is two-dimensional, with none of the relief of traditional divided lites; while nevertheless obstructing any view.
And so, the fundamental question: Why bother?