I’ve found that when it comes to awnings, most people fall into one of two categories: They either love them, or they hate them. The naysayers assert that awnings are a technology whose time has passed; that they’re easily faded and torn, making the whole house look shabby; or that they look tacked-on, distracting from the building’s architecture.
But for those of us in the other camp, there are just as many reasons to love awnings. Awnings can be historically accurate and a great finishing detail on a period-perfect home, like a scarf or tie that complements an outfit. Ship-shape awnings are attractive—and new awnings of various period styles can still be purchased, so there’s no need to make do with shabby ones. To dispense with awnings because they weather is the same as saying you won’t buy draperies because they don’t last forever.
Plus, awnings have green appeal. Before energy-sucking air conditioning, people relied on awnings to help cool their homes, reducing solar heat gain as well as protecting furniture, curtains, and rugs from sun damage. As author and architectural historian Chad Randl notes in his National Park Service Preservation Brief (#44) on awnings, “Awnings can reduce heat gain up to 65 percent in south-facing windows and up to 77 percent in windows facing east.”
He also points out that awnings can be used in addition to air conditioning, making it possible to install a smaller-capacity HVAC system: “When used with air conditioners, awnings can lower the cost of cooling a building by up to 25 percent.” Since old-house enthusiasts are always under pressure to replace original house parts with new “energy-saving” ones, it’s nice to preserve a historical element that is inarguably green.
Despite their history, usefulness, and attractiveness, awnings still face discrimination. For instance, the City of Boston’s Back Bay Architectural Commission guidelines forbid window awnings in this historic residential neighborhood because they “distract from the architecture.” Instead, Back Bay home-owners often maintain window boxes full of colorful flowers on their row houses’ bay windows. But 19th-century photographs reveal plenty of awnings but nary a window box on Commonwealth Avenue.
I live in a 1940s Modernist home, complete with flat roof and white-painted cinder-block construction. Period books with photos of Modern homes from the 1930s and ’40s showed that less was not necessarily more—people happily added canvas awnings to their stark homes. A 1930s image of a woman lounging on the canopied terrace of her sleek concrete home makes me want to add one to my house.
The leisure-class image of awnings continued post-war. When I was a girl in the 1960s and ’70s, the houses that sported window awnings in my tract-housing neighborhood looked fancy—especially if the awning was monogrammed in swirly script, like the letter D on a house nearby. Thirty years later, the awnings have disappeared. I still miss them on visits home. Did the “D” family move? Did they pass away? Did they want window boxes instead?
In their heyday, awnings were special enough that whole businesses were devoted to their care. Longtime Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, homeowner Phyllis Green keeps her awnings in place, but admits they’re more difficult to maintain now.
“Awnings were a big deal in the old days,” she recalls. “People had contracts with companies; they would install your awnings in the spring and come again in the late fall to remove and store them for the winter. I miss that.”
The good news is that awnings are still being made, and they can still add to the attractiveness and functionality of your home. The key is to put the right style of awning on your house—awnings’ lackluster approval ratings haven’t been helped by the slew of 19th-century houses decked out in modern awnings.
Most awnings from the 19th century until after World War II were made of canvas. In the 1950s, acrylic and vinyl coatings were added to lengthen the life of the fabric. Those improvements were soon eclipsed by aluminum awnings—inappropriate for application to an older home, but great for a 1950s ranch.
In addition to changing materials, improvements were made to the mechanical functionality of awnings over the years. Operable awnings replaced fixed iron-pipe frames at the end of the 19th century and were popular for their ability to be retracted and extended. However, the fabric on early operable awnings tended to bunch against the façade of the building when retracted, which caused pooling of water and faster deterioration. This led to the creation of roller awnings, which, when fully retracted, leave only the valance visible.
Awning companies continued to tinker with the technology. Folding-arm awnings were developed in the beginning of the 20th century and had small criss-crossed arms. Spring-loaded lateral arms, invented in the 1920s, bend like a human elbow with a spring action. I often find myself gazing with new appreciation at awnings on buildings (even the old, weather-worn ones) to try to accurately date them.
When it comes to awnings, I unreservedly love them. Considering their nostalgic look, potential for energy savings, and their ability to protect exterior window frames and interior furnishings, it’s time for awnings to once again take their place in the sun.
Published in: Old-House Journal August/September 2011
Online Exclusive: 4 Tips for Maintaining Historic Awnings
1. Keep the frame in good shape.
Make sure pivot points are well-lubricated and free of debris. If the frame is rusted, promptly clean and paint it to prevent it from damaging the awning. (For tips on mitigating rust, see this article.) Replace damaged or missing hardware.
2. Clean awnings regularly.
About once a month, give your awning a good once-over with the garden hose to remove leaves, branches, sap, or animal droppings, all of which can damage the fabric. Also, clear away debris from the underside of the awning with a broom. Twice a year, break out the scrub brush and gently wash the fabric with mild, soapy water, rinsing with a garden hose. For even greater longevity, consider having the awnings professionally cleaned every few years.
3. Fix rips and holes.
You can fix minor tears in the fabric yourself, using a patch kit to cover the affected area. You can also use hot needle or awl to melt frayed edges and prevent the tear from spreading. In most cases, minor defects can be repaired while the awning is still on the frame. Larger tears will require removing the awning to patch or sew seams. If the damage is significant or the awning is subject to frequent distress, it may be time to replace the fabric altogether.
4. Consider seasonal removal.
The best way to care for your awnings is to take them down during the winter (when weather conditions are harsher, and heat gain isn’t an issue). If you can hire a professional to do this, you’ll get them cleaned and repaired at the same time. Although the number of companies performing this service has definitely gotten smaller as the popularity of awnings has waned, they are still out there. Check out the National Register of Professional Awning Cleaners (awningpro.com) to find one near you.
For more advice on awnings, see NPS Preservation Brief #44.