Functional window shutters were a mainstay of American architecture from Colonial days through the 1930s. While today’s homes often feature fixed shutter panels for ornamentation, true operable shutters lend authenticity and purpose to a home.
Shutters Bring Security
Shutters were originally designed to protect the home from damaging wind and weather. The very first shutters operated from the interior, and were used instead of glass to close up the house and keep out unwanted heat, pests, wind, rain, and snow. With the advent of glass, shutters became important insurance against damaging wind and wind-driven debris. Glass was expensive and hard to replace, so shutters were closed when the storms rolled in. Certainly in coastal regions like the lowlands of South Carolina, shutters are still the first defense against Mother Nature and hurricane season. "Even today," says Randy Withers of Withers Industries, "when hurricanes come, homeowners just close all their shutters, bolt them down, and head on West."
Shutters are also used for security. Especially on the ground floor, where windows are a primary means of access, exterior shutters can close and bolt while allowing cooler evening air to pass through the louvers and into the home. Many shutters feature raised panel designs that completely close off the window from the outside and form a secure barrier. Cutouts are sometimes used on panel shutters for ornamentation and to encourage some airflow. Still, according to both Withers and Ed Donaldson, owner of Ed Donaldson Hardware Restoration in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, shutters are above all practical. "The whole idea behind shutters was to protect your glass and keep people from getting inside your house," Donaldson stresses. All of the options that were developed in shutter hardware from Colonial times, through the Federal period, and into the Victorian era were little marks of sophistication that added to the product but didn’t change its function.
For operable shutters to function properly, they must be installed correctly. Shutters must sit 1/4 inch off the sill, so that they can close inside the window opening. Shutters must not protrude from the face of the house in case of extreme wind, or they risk being pulled from the face of the house. Closing and bolting shutters within the window opening allows wind to pass across the face of the house, but protects the glass from direct assault. It is also important to have the shutters installed at a slight incline so that they will swing closed once the shutter dog or holdback is released. A properly installed dog has its weighted ornament at the bottom, with the metal holdback in front of the shutter. It isn’t until the weight is moved that the shutter can swing free.
Shutter hardware, like the shutters themselves, is selected for beauty and character as well as functionality. Homeowners can purchase wrought iron hardware, cast iron, brass, or bronze. The strap hinges, plates or pintles, and the shutter dogs are the essential components of a working shutter. Shutters can be installed directly into a wood, masonry, stone, or brick façade. Additional hardware, like pull rings that are installed on the face of the shutter and used to grasp and pull the shutter closed, can be purchased to match the strap hinges and bolts. Slide bolts are used to secure the shutters once closed. They can affix one shutter to another, or bolt directly into the sill. It is definitely worth studying pictures of the home, or houses in the area, to determine the hardware style that suits. Colonial homes had simple strap hinges and rings, while Federal-style houses used stylized shutter dogs to express style and values. Victorian homes excelled in exterior ornamentation and complicated patterns. Shutter knobs, hinges, and pulls often reflected the refinement of that era. Reproduction hardware companies and specialized craftspeople can help determine the appropriate hardware, style, and degree of craftsmanship for most homes.
Shutters come in many different styles and finishes. The traditional louver pattern is common on Colonials in the Northeast and the upper stories of Southern homes. Raised-panel designs were very popular in the South and would have provided an added measure of security to the homeowners. Quite often a home would have paneled shutters on the lower windows, and louvered shutters upstairs. This allowed the air to circulate in the sleeping areas, while closing the lower story to intruders. Shutters can be made of southern yellow pine that is treated and kiln dried, such as the shutters from Withers, or made of basswood, redwood, or pine. Shutters may be painted or stained, but like all exterior wood, must be properly maintained in order to last. "Properly maintained, shutters should last a lifetime," says Withers. "Painting them and priming them when you first put them up is the most important."
Selecting an appropriate shutter style is as much a matter of preference as anything else. There are louvered shutters, board-and-batten, raised panel, combinations, cutouts, and even Bermuda-style shutters for a more tropical appeal. Browsing through catalogues and Web sites, looking at historic photos and magazines is a great way to develop a sense of shutter styles. If working with a designer, contractor, or architect, clients can cut and paste different shutter styles into an exterior home program. Some paint stores even offer this service.
As with any finish element, shutters bring about the debate over style and authenticity. Architectural review boards and historic societies argue over them, preservationists insist on historically accurate reproductions and restorations. Still, it can be hard to pinpoint the historically correct details for any given home, especially when it comes to shutters. While some neighborhoods and regions show a predisposition toward certain shutter styles and hardware components, it is important to remember that taste, preference, and availability were just as important throughout history as they are today. "If homeowners wanted it to look like a page from a magazine (or style catalogue), then they’d make it look like the magazine," says Donaldson. "If they wanted it like the house next door, they’d do that." Granted, the star, shell-shaped, or S-shaped shutter dogs may have been prevalent in a given area, but that’s probably because those are the styles that the local hardware store carried. Different hardware stores had exclusive contracts with different suppliers, so a certain style was often limited to a region or area of the city. There would have been more variety if they’d had more selection.
So, make certain to select the style and ornaments that work for you and your home. Paint colors can be matched to their historical era, and craftsmen are available throughout the country to reproduce treasured patterns and styles. Shutters are the ultimate ornament for a home’s façade. If they can operate to keep your home, its contents, and inhabitants comfortable and secure, then shutters make smart home sense, too.
Credit: Renovate with Tommy Mac