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 scalloped edges of a crisp awning mimic the lines of the screen door on this Colonial Revival. (Photo: Barbara Rhines)
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.
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.