The strength of
a nation is derived
from the integrity
of its homes.
          - Confucius





Copyright © 2017                                  
The L'Enfant Trust, Washington, DC

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Window Shutters on Historic Properties

The replacement or installation of exterior shutters is a common concern for homeowners of historic properties. To address the issue, The L'Enfant Trust compiled this guide to assist property owners as they contemplate the best option for their property.

Figure 1

Why are shutters important?

Exterior shutters were first used in window openings before glass was readily available or affordable. Wood shutters served as a protective barrier against inclement weather, direct sunlight and dusty unpaved streets. Even after the mass production of glass, shutters continued to protect fragile window glass and provide privacy for a building's inhabitants.

Shutters were used at the beginning of early American architecture through the mid-1800s. By the Victorian era (c. 1860-1900) architectural styles, such as Queen Anne and Richardsonian Romanesque, rarely used exterior shutters; preferring heavy interior drapery instead. Shutters rose again in popularity with the Colonial Revival style architecture that drew influence from the earlier Federal and Georgian architectural styles. In the early 20th century, modern ventilation systems, along with storm windows and window screens, reduced the need for exterior shutters and many were removed and discarded. The popularity of aluminum and vinyl products in the 1950s helped to relegate shutters to non-operable decoration instead of practical building components.

The necessity for shutters has changed over time, but they can still provide many of the same benefits as they did historically. Shutters can be a "green" way to insulate your home year round. For example, opening your shutters during the day in the winter allows the sunlight to warm the house and closing them at night keeps the warm air in. During the summer months, keeping the shutters closed during the hottest part of the day shields the house from sunlight and reduces the need to turn up the air conditioning. You can also prolong the life of your historic windows by using shutters to protect the wood frames and thin glass from the elements.


Historic Shutter Styles & Materials

In Washington, DC, the earliest styles of shutters were solid shutters such as paneled and board-and-batten. Solid shutters allowed for the highest level of protection from outside elements. By the latter half of the 18th century, fixed louvered shutters started to appear on the upper floors of multi-story buildings. Louvered shutters could provide privacy in the above sleeping rooms while also allowing for natural ventilation. Many buildings used paneled shutters on the first floor where protection from outside elements was most important and the louvered shutters above. The most popular and utilitarian type of shutters were the operable louvered or tilt rod shutters manufactured in around 1830-40. The tilt rod louvered shutter was the perfect combination of the paneled and louvered shutter. Depending on whether the louvers were opened or closed, the tilt rod shutter could act as both a traditional paneled and louvered shutter.

Historically, exterior shutters were made of rot resistant Cedar or Cyprus wood. Shutters were constructed of either panels or louvers framed by stiles (vertical sides of the shutter) and rails (horizontal sides of the shutter). (See diagram.) Metal hinges and pintles allowed the shutter to open and close. Hinges were mounted to the shutters and the pintles were installed on the window casing. If an owner needed to bring the shutters inside or make repairs, the shutters could be easily lifted off the pintles. Shutter dogs or tiebacks were installed on the facade to keep the shutters in place on the house when open. To prevent drilling into the masonry, many stone and brick buildings used a hook and eye mounted only to the shutter and window sill. Shutters also had interior latches or locks that were used to keep the shutters closed and locked from inside the building.

Figure 2

Historic Hardware

Shutter hardware comes in many different styles and is usually made of iron or steel. Here are a few of the most common types.


Figure a


Figure b

Shutter Dogs & Tiebacks
Figure c

Locks & Latches
Figure d

Figure 2

Does your house have shutters?

If you are unsure whether your home had shutters, try looking for these clues.

  • A recessed window niche or reveal on the exterior window casing where shutters could have folded into.
  • Signs of screw holes or existing hardware on the exterior window casing.
  • Ghost marks or stains on the building's facade where shutters once hung.
  • Historic photographs of your property that may reveal original shutters or shutter hardware.

If you found evidence that your historic building had shutters, it may be a worthwhile project to have new shutters installed. Please remember shutters are not suitable for all historic buildings. If you have any questions on whether your property had shutters or what style shutter is the most appropriate, please contact The L'Enfant Trust.

Figure 3

Checklist for Installing or Replacing Window Shutters

Shutter size is found by measuring the reveal of the window opening as if the shutters were closed. Please keep in mind that houses settle and change so the window opening may not be completely square. The shutter height is determined by measuring from the top of the window jamb to the highest point on the window sill. The overall width of both shutters is determined by measuring the space between the right and left window jambs. The width of each shutter is half of the overall width. Properly measuring for new or replacement shutters can be difficult, so please consult an expert if you have questions.

If you plan to install shutters on a rounded or arched window opening, please make sure the shape or the window and shutter are the same. Rectangular shutters should not be installed on a rounded top window.

Do not mount shutters directly to the facade. Use appropriate hardware to hang the shutters inside the window casing so they can fold flush into the window opening.

Do not use shutters on double or Palladian style windows where the openings are too wide for one pair of shutters.

Do not mount shutters backwards. Louvers should angle towards the house when open and away from the house when closed.

Do not use decorative cutouts on shutters unless you have evidence that the cutout was used on the historic shutters.

Shutters for most historic properties should be constructed of solid wood or a paintable wood composite material.

Please remember to obtain a letter of approval from The L'Enfant Trust before removing, replacing or installing exterior shutters!

Figure 4

Contacts & Additional Resources

Brandywine Forge
(Shutter Hardware Only)

Kestrel Shutters and Doors, Inc.

Perfect Fit Custom Shutters

Shuttercraft, Inc.

Southern Shutter Company

Timberlane Shutters

Second Chance
(Salvage Shutters & Hardware)


Lauren O. McHale
Director of Preservation

Julianne Johnson, Intern
Historic Preservation Master's Degree Candidate
Graduate Program in Historic Preservation
Clemson University/College of Charleston

Daniel Tana, Intern
Historic Preservation Master's Degree Candidate
University of Maryland School of Architecture,
Planning & Preservation


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Like most non-profit organizations, The L'Enfant Trust relies on charitable cash donations from the public. Please consider making a voluntary, tax-deductible donation of $50 or more to the Trust — particularly if you find our Built to Last e-bulletin helpful in caring for your historic property. Thank you for your support.

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