Like many older homes, one of the key period pieces in our home is the transom windows that still exist over most of the house's doorways. Strictly a utilitarian feature of historic architecture, transom windows were used to both allow additional light into or out of a room, and to allow easier passage of heat or cool air to flow between rooms. Though offering utility in their implementation, their classic looks are a signature element of our home that we've painstakingly cared for and restored.

Throughout the renovation of our entry hallway and vestibule, we've been working to bring the charm and historic accuracy back to our entryway, including a full restoration of the transom above the interior front door. We're lucky enough to have the original and unbroken wavy glass in this transom window, a feature that is often hit or miss throughout older homes. When the sunlight comes in through this window, the light is slightly distorted by the uneven glass and looks quite nice on the walls or floor. However, this transom was not an operable transom window, meaning it did not open to allow the passage of air.

Typically, transom windows were configured in a way that would allow a person to open them when they wanted to let heat flow between rooms, or to allow the creation of a draft to cool the home. The mechanisms to allow opening of transoms were fairly vast in their construction and styles. There were bottom hinged transoms with latches and chains that had a long pole to pull the latch open, side hinged transoms that opened like doors, and top hinged transoms with fixed lifts that could be hand operated.

However, the transom above our front door was a "fixed" transom, and did not open in any way. Below is a photo of our window from early on in our renovation process, with all of its bumpy paint intact.

Originally, we thought that it had simply been painted shut, but after stripping the paint from the window and molding, we could see that it was held in place by two very old cut nails and there were no obvious signs of hinges or transom window hardware. Since our home was a simple and modest home, we believe that the window never actually opened and was left in a fixed position to save the builder some money (trust me, this isn't the only place in our home the builder cut some corners to save money).

We decided that, though the window never opened in the past, that was no reason not to make an operable transom now. But the only way I would do this was to make it look like it has always been functional. 

The first item we had to tackle in this project was the sourcing of the transom window hardware. There are many reproduction items available from various manufacturers. Each one is usually in a polished brass finish, runs about $200-$300, and simply wouldn't look right with the decor and style of our home. Besides, I don't like to use reproduction hardware in our house when there is typically a way to find authentic hardware with just a little patience. After striking out at some salvage yards, either due to the asking price or the condition of the transom lifts, I went to my favorite secondary source for antique hardware: eBay.

With a search for "transom window lift," "transom window rod," or "transom window hardware," you can usually find a decent amount of inventory. I was able to get a single full set of hardware with all brackets in great shape for about $40 with shipping. The hardware we bought is the same style as the four rods in the following photo.

Next, I found a simple set of 2" x 2" cast iron butt hinges that we would affix to the top of the window.

Once the hardware was in hand, I carefully removed the transom from its position above the door. I felt a little bad since it has been in its location for 125 years, but felt good that we were adding a piece of period function. Once I removed the window, it was obvious that it had never opened, the wood beside the window had never actually been painted. 

Using a chisel, I mortised the hinges hinges into the top of the transom and mounted it within the transom opening. It isn't the easiest thing in the world, but with Wendy's help I was able to hang the window in place without dropping or breaking it, my biggest fear when working with old and original glass.

Once the hinges were in place, I started to work on mounting the transom lift hardware. It is pretty straight forward, you just need to make sure the hardware moves enough to open your window far enough to give it the function it needs. I tend to mount the lift about midway up the side of the window. This will usually give it enough lift. I did need to drill a hold through the ledge below the window. That ledge was put in place well after the house was built, but I didn't want to remove it since the door we had purchased was sized properly based on the existing opening. Oh well...

The actual attachment of the lift is done with a handful of small screws. I added a squirt or two of WD40 to get the mechanism working squeak free, and we had an operable transom window.

We added some function to our home that was always intended but was previously left out, and I'm quite happy about that.

Fully open, the transom allows a decent amount of airflow. Once we have our new vestibule configuration, we'll be able to open the outer front doors, keep the inner door closed, and open the transom to get a nice cross breeze going through the house.

With this project done on our vestibule overhaul, let's take a look at what we have left to tackle.

  1. Renovate the space, walls, ceiling, molding, strip, patch, paint
  2. Install new tile floor
  3. Purchase antique mail slot
  4. Replace interior doors with stripped and fitted salvaged door 
  5. Replace exterior door with salvaged door after stripping and replacing glass panes
  6. Make interior transom window operational
  7. Replace exterior transom window with either leaded glass or painted house numbers (we're not sure on this step yet)

We're well on our way with this project and can't wait to finish it up.

Have you ever made a transom window that was painted shut operational again? Maybe added some function to your old home that didn't previously exist? Let us know the outcome and what you worked on.

Comments 11

Comments

Steve
6/22/2011 at 10:37 AM
We got our bedroom transoms open and working, though I still have a lot of stripping to do. We're thinking about stripping the transoms and painting the doors and trim. Makes for an interesting look.

I need to look into some of that hardware perhaps to open and close them. Ours have no hardware — you just reach up and swing 'em open or closed.

www.ouroldrowhouse.com/2011/02/windows-to-the-past/
Alex
6/22/2011
I know the exact style of transoms you have. The middle pinned style is pretty common in houses that are similar age to yours, so I'm not sure you need to worry about any hardware. I would say, at most, add a chain on the side to limit how far they spin. I think the hardware like we have was more common in the mid to late 1800s, but were cumbersome and too obtrusive for the styles of the early 1900s.

I do think the stripped look would be cool. When you are stripping your transoms, just be careful of the glass. I'd actually say to go ahead and strip them, remove the glazing, then re-glaze them. That'll give them that nice clear look around the glass.
6/22/2011 at 9:06 PM
We would also like to eventually make our transoms functional again at some point. Ours are of an unmentioned type, they hinge in the middle. Rather than a hinge, they have some sort of rod/peg in the middle of each transom so that it can flip in/out much like a.. well, not sure what to compare it to. But in theory they spin on a horizontal access (I don't know if there are any other limitations to the rotation of the transoms because they are painted in place)
Alex
6/22/2011
Hah, I was actually responding to Steve from the first comment when you submitted this one. Steve, meet Doug... Doug, Steve. Your houses are very similar and you have the same style transom. Check out Steve's link above and you will see the same style transoms as you have in your house.
Steve
6/23/2011 at 12:43 PM
Ooh, I do like the idea of a little chain. It's hard to get them to stay open in the middle — a nice chain would allow me to swing them past the midway point so it wants to roll all the way over, and the chain would help it stay put.

Unfortunately, as you might be able to see from one of the pictures, they ran the AC duct in front of one of the transoms so it won't open but an inch or two. (It has to swing inward at the top. With no real attic space, there's not a whole lot I can do about that.

Though I could rebuild the frame to make the transom swing the other way. hmm...
9/12/2011 at 4:02 PM
We've got a house full of transoms and have done renovation on many of them. I wanted to put some nice numbers in our entry door transom and had a hard time finding anything decent so I started making them and selling them and have a nice little business going. We're called The House Number Lab and specialize in gold transom house numbers - www.housenumberlab.com.

I think we could hook you up with something really cool (just based on the images you've got posted here). Take a look and let me know. I have a discount for bloggers.

Best,
Glenn
Kent
1/25/2012 at 4:26 PM
where did you end up getting your transom operators for $40? I can't seem to find anything shy of $90....

Thanks!
Alex
1/25/2012
I feel your pain. We got lucky and found ours on eBay but it took a fair amount of patience until the right one came up. We bought a matching set of two for another project for about $75 total.
Otis
1/20/2013 at 11:07 AM
I enjoyed reading your blog; the transom looks great! I've just yesterday freed my transom that is above the front door (a six pane one about 5 or so ft. long)and am now in the market for transom lift hardware. I was glad to see that yours is like mine in that it is hinged at the top, as most of them I have seen seem to hinge at the bottom. So my question for you is how did you know which type of lift to get when you were looking for one. I assume the hardware has to be different for bottom hinge and for top hinge? Or are they the same? Looking at a picture of the transom lifts on ebay, I might as well have been looking at a diagram for a rocket build, ha. Can't make heads or tails of how they operate based on the pictures. I also have what I believe to be a fixed transom above a side door (c. 1895ish)that I don't see any signs of hardware or hinge mortices. In future I'd like to try to get it operational as well! Thanks! Great work!!
Brian D. Miller
11/1/2013 at 3:42 PM

Nice article and restoration. I rescued four transoms from the offices on the fifth floor of Belk's Department Store in downtown Charlotte, NC (1910 addition) when I was a high school student. Now 41, I have one of these installed in my 1935 bungalow. These were the latch/chain type. Hooray for the transom!

Vangie
8/19/2014 at 1:09 PM

I restored the transom in my kitchen door. The lift hardware has a part missing. Does anyone know if there is an ironworks place that would recreate the missing piece?

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