Preservation ABCs: S is for Shutter

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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S is for Shutter

Real (functioning) shutters on a house in Clarendon Springs, VT.

Real (functioning) shutters on a house in Clarendon Springs, VT.

Shutters adorn buildings for reasons greater than aesthetics; shutters also have a functional history associated with buildings. Originally solid wood panels on hinges, until the late 18th century when wood slat shutters were introduced, these traditionally movable panels were used for insulation, light control, privacy and protection from the elements. Consider it early air conditioning and thermal panes. Shutters can be found on the interior or the exterior of a building.

Shutters are associated with many architectural styles (according to Virginia & Lee McAlester in A Field Guide to American Houses) including French Colonial, Federal, Georgian, Greek Revival, Colonial Revival and French Eclectic. However, you can readily find shutters on any architectural style if you look. On some of these styles, shutters were meant to be functional – often on the earlier styles such as French Colonial and Georgian. During the wide-ranging Colonial Revival era, shutters became decorative.

How can you distinguish between functional shutters and decorative shutters? It’s simple, actually. Functional shutters, when closed, will cover the entire window. Decorative shutters are too small for the window openings. Consider the ranch houses of the 1950s that have shutters on either side of a large picture window. Relate that to the actual purpose of shutters, and it seems a bit silly, yes? Also, functional shutters will have hinges and hardware called “shutter dogs” which hold them in place when not being used. Many shutters today are plastic and simply attached on either side of a window. An aesthetic preference, though architectural historians find non-functional, inappropriately sized shutters to be ridiculous. (Just a peak into their architectural world!)

Does your house have shutters? What do you think of functional shutters? What do you think of shutters for decoration?