Transom Window Lifts
Our 1913 Queenslander was built with 14 transom windows above all internal and external doors, the external windows fitted with rolled figured glass and internals with clear panes. Over time they were all nailed, painted and jammed shut and by the time we moved into the house they hadn't been opened for - who knows, 50 years or more. I can't stand paint-smothered hardware so a restoration was always on the cards.
These windows are often referred to as "fanlights" but that term should technically be reserved for fan- or half-moon shaped windows. The correct name for a rectangular aperture is transom window, denoting a horizontal element or bar above a window or door.
Transom window lifter, before renovation (left) and after.
Transom windows were generally hinged from the lower edge of the frame or on a central pivot. A range of hardware mechanisms were devised to operate the high-set windows and the most common method involved a latch and cords. But in our house the formal spaces comprising the central hallway, dining room and drawing room all used "transom lifts", also referred to as "transom operators", 'transom rods" and "transom openers". We have five of these and they were commonplace in early 20-th century houses although most have been lost in restorations or buried in paint. But if you look for them you might spot one - as I did in my GP's surgery the other day, for example.
Before stripping the paint I could barely make out a maker's mark on the small lifter handle, which later turned out to be a "RHCo" brand. And to my delight the locking mechanism had prominent patent mark stating "Pat. June 6 1899". I also noted that the hardware had once been bronze-plated although almost all of the delicate finish had been lost over time.
1899 patent and RHCo maker's marks
RHCo stands for the Reading Hardware Company which was based in Pennsylvania USA and manufactured a range of appliances and building hardware for local and export markets. There were several transom lift designs but the RHCo model has the advantage of a locking mechanism that is released by gently pulling the handle out from the wall. The 100-year old internal spring mechanism worked perfectly on all of our transom lifts, once the clogs of paint and muck had been removed.
The restoration involved freeing the windows from their frames using whatever other tools were required to get through the paint, fossilized dust and nails. The frames were trimmed with a plane and sanded to remove old paint and straighten warped edges. All frames were rubbed down with a sanding sponge and painted.
The lifter components were taken apart and boiled, stripped, rubbed down with fine steel wool and sealed with several coats of spray lacquer. A Dremel rotary tool fitted with a steel brush provided a burnished finish before the lacquer was applied. I decided not to paint the hardware black although this is an option where a uniform finish can't be achieved. The hardware was re-installed and the windows finished with a lockable latch for security.
We still have one door where the original transom lift is missing but my search for a salvaged replacement so far has drawn a blank. The lifts look unimpressive when covered in grubby old paint and are simply ripped off and tossed out whenever old houses are renovated. What a shame. And yes - reproductions are available of this exact model but the casting and detailing is downright awful compared to the originals. The search for a salvaged, genuine "Reading" transom lift continues.
The 1899 patent, the full document
can be downloaded here
A note from reader David: "I just spent this morning freeing the transom window from above out front door. It certainly lets the Brisbane summer breezes through now that it's opened. I suspect the window hadn't been moved in decades. In the process, though, I noticed that our window has identical hardware. Strangely, though, only our front door appears to have ever been fitted with such hardware. The similar transom windows above other doors to the verandah have to make do with a rope! Thanks for the blog. As a fellow Brisbane renovator, it's great to share this information." Thanks David - let us know how you go.