Vermont--diagonal "witch windows" in houses

Any Vermonters in the house?

I was up in Vermont’s Mad River Valley last May and saw a number of old Colonial homes that sported a curious architectural element I hadn’t seen elsewhere: In the gable-end wall of the house, the builders had set an ordinary (two-over-two?) window–a vertical “portrait”-oriented window just like the rest of the windows in the house–on the diagonal so that one of the upper corners pointed into the peak of the house.

The locals I spoke with called them “witch windows”, believed they were installed that way purposely because of some superstition, but didn’t know exactly why.

Anyone familiar with this architectural phenomenon?

With windows are an early form of air conditioning. During the summer months, attics can reach very high temperatures. To keep the house regulated, that air needs to be vented. Before soffits, a witch window was a good way to keep the air flowing. They’re angled that way for efficiency.

The superstitution has something to do with witches being unable to fly their brooms at that angle into the house while the window is open.

Vermonter here (born there, don’t have “seven in the ground”, and currently in New Zealand, so “real” Vermonters would take issue with me).

I have no frickin’ idea. However, my I will postulate that they are located where windows are needed, but a standard window size wouldn’t fit. Rather than a custom window having to be made, which would go against the legendary thriftiness that New Englanders used to be famous for, an off-the-shelf window was purchased and simply framed in parallel to the roofing beams.

Most of the windows of this type that I have seen are on walls between two sections of the house, where one roof was maybe three feet lower than the other. I would imagine that these windows usually illuminated stairwells.

Someone once told me that they were to make it easier to get bodies out of a second floor, but I can’t see as taking a body out a window and down off a roof is any easier than just taking down a flight of stairs. Duh.

Googling for this info is futile. Another option would be to send an email to The Shelburne Museum (website at their name plus .org). The SM is reknowned for their collection of American folk art and old buildings (many dis-assembled and relocated to museum grounds). If you’re ever in Vermont again, don’t miss it (though it is closed in the winter).

Hope you had fun skiing. Snow is beautiful but I don’t miss it much. The weather here is just about ideal for my tastes.


TOURIST: (Pointing) Hey buddy, what do they call that funny window over there?

VERMONTER: Which window?

TOURIST: Thanks! (Drives off.)

[Grinny here]

Could you explain? If it’s the type of normal window I’m thinking of, why would the angle at which it’s set in a wall affect its ability to allow air to pass? Wouldn’t that simply rely on how widely it was open?

Another Vermonter-moved-elsewhere checking in here. evilhanz is right. They were installed high on the side of the house so that in the summer months the heat could escape, as heat rises etc…etc… The superstition part is correct too. Us vermonters are a odd bunch aren’t eh?

Well, it allows one of the upper corners of the window to fit right up against the rafters, as it were – that way, you don’t have a triangle of wall up above a flat window. So the entire gable end peak is filled with window.


Could someone post a URL with a pic of one of these?

I noticed these for the first time last month on the way to Saco, ME. Once I noticed one I saw that at least one in five houses had them! (my only excuse for not noticing earlier is thay I’m almost always the driver, who needs to look out for traffic, rather than the passenger like this time) Since not all of these homes were old, and some looked relatively new, there must still be a use for them. Same reason as in days of yore?

I never thought of them as odd, growing up here in Montpelier VT. They’re all over the place. I can’t seem to find a photo of them on the web, though. If one doesn’t turn up by tomorrow, I’ll take my camera to work and snap a photo on the way in.