Brick building on a green lawn.
Rev. George B. Hitchcock House

National Park Service

The former home of abolitionist Rev. George B. Hitchcock in cass County, Iowa recently received the coveted designation of National Historic Landmark (NHL) – a process that began in the late 1970s, first with the listing on the National Register of Historic Places, then with the Department of the Interior’s Network to Freedom listing. The Friends of Hitchcock House recently completed a campaign to raise funds to replace all of the windows; most were beyond repair.

Windows are one of the most visible aspects of a building’s exterior, and play a crucial role in determining a building’s significance from an architectural perspective. Both the National Register of Historic Places and NHL criteria consider “character-defining” architectural elements in determining significance. Major exterior features of a building’s exterior include: design, construction, fenestration (door and window openings, and their arrangement - spacing, rhythm, etc.), roofing and roof lines, and massing. All play a role in determining a building’s significance, especially if a building is nominated for its architecture.
Three people smiling and holding onto a plaque.
Hitchcock House designation ceremony.

Photo courtesy of Sandy Fairbairn.

As one of the few parts of a building serving as both an interior and exterior feature, windows are nearly always an important part of a historic building. These character-defining elements are also evaluated for their “integrity.” In National Register lingo, “Integrity is the ability of a property to convey its historical associations or attributes. The evaluation of integrity is somewhat of a subjective judgment, but it must always be grounded in an understanding of a property's physical features and how they relate to its historical associations or attributes.” Integrity can be affected if a building’s character-defining features are diminished in any way – if they have been altered in a way that detracts from the important period in history for which the building is significant, or due to poor condition.

The Friends of Hitchcock House and the Hitchcock House Board are taking a very serious step in deciding to replace the building’s windows. The National Park Service strongly encourages historic property owners to repair rather than replace historic materials, as delineated in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, to which the Board referred.
The sequence of preferred treatment begins with the least intrusive (preservation) followed by rehabilitation, then restoration, and lastly reconstruction. Three of the standards for restoration (#5 - #7) applied to the Hitchcock Board’s decision:

5. Distinctive materials, features, finishes, and construction techniques or examples of craftsmanship that characterize the restoration period will be preserved.

6. Deteriorated features from the restoration period will be repaired rather than replaced. Where the severity of deterioration requires replacement of a distinctive feature, the new feature will match the old in design, color, texture, and, where possible, materials.

7. Replacement of missing features from the restoration period will be substantiated by documentary and physical evidence. A false sense of history will not be created by adding conjectural features, features from other properties, or by combining features that never existed together historically.

When considering a window restoration project, care must be taken to ensure that these three standards are followed. Professionals in historic architecture or historic preservation would be a welcome addition to any team exploring such a project. For the Hitchcock House, the replaced windows will be fabricated to reproduce as accurately as possible the windows which were documented to have existed during the historic period.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 1, 2006, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Mark Chavez.

Standards for Restoration credited to: “How to Evaluate And Document National Significance for Potential National Historic Landmarks,” National Register of Historic Places Bulletin, “How to Prepare National Historic Landmark Nominations,” Chapter IV. U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, National Register, History and Education.

Hitchcock information credited to: The Hitchcock Banner, Volume 13, No. 1, Spring 2006.

Last updated: July 5, 2018