Shutters – Why?

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Here’s a typical scene in St. Louis Hills – a mid-century modern apartment building nicely appointed with various stone and brick textures to create a pleasing geometric palette.  I can imagine living here, with the generous fenestration that surely makes the rooms seem comfortably large. But then something horrible happened somewhere along the way.

Some misguided landlord decided that the windows on the ends of the building needed cheap-ass plastic shutters! There’s obviously no understanding or appreciation of architectural aesthetics, just some primal urge to bolt plastic where it should not be. This was the final straw of my long-time confusion about – and hatred of – shutters.

There is a specific and finite need for shutters: to control light and air, and/or protection against strong wind, rains and hurricanes. 20th century indoor climate control has taken care of the former, and a finite number of dwellings in coastal areas still need it for the latter. After that, shutters are, basically, the proverbial mustache on the Mona Lisa. And when one insists upon using them as a minor exterior accessory, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it.

A recent article on Retro Renovation addresses this very topic. “Improve Your Home’s Curb Appeal With Shutters” is much more polite about the topic. The closest author Ted Cleary comes to rolling his eyes is when he writes: “Cheap shutters, which are so common that many people don’t even question the look, can give a flat, pasted-on appearance; authentic ones can make all the difference.” He is then very thorough in relaying the “cardinal rules” rules of proper shutters:
• They must be exactly half the width of the window
• They must convey the believable appearance of actually being usable
• The length must match the window’s length rather than standard lengths available at big box home improvement stores

As shown above on an historic home in Webster Groves, authentic shutters have hinges, and when closed they would completely cover the window. Originally, these shutters would have controlled sunlight while keeping air flowing through in the summer or blocking drafts in the winter, and during a storm they protected the windows from breaking. These shutters are cool because they are authentic.

Same goes for these shutters on a Benton Park building. These even have the latches to hold the shutters against the building when not in use. Plus, they are real wood and painted a sumptuous shade of blue that contrasts nicely with the red brick. Well done.

These shutters are not operable, so they are purely cosmetic. But they are the correct size, made of wood with a cute pattern, and their soft cream color serves as a wonderful accent to the overall rustic look of the home, much like the right accessories can really pop an outfit.

I feel exceptions can be made when shutters are truly thought of as a visual element that adds to the dialog of the home’s design, like these shutters (above and below) on standard-issue ranch homes in Florissant, MO. They are the right length, but certainly not the right width. But these shutters originally attached by the builder in the 1960s have an endless array of jaunty motifs that don’t pretend to be anything other than earrings for the windows. This playfulness is charming, and it was a clever way to address that there was no longer a need for shutters unless they could contribute meaningfully to the glossy modern era of suburban living.

But after that, we have an endless chain of mindless shutter application. Somewhere along the way, shutter manufacturers devised a clever marketing campaign that has kept this product as a normal, accepted accoutrement for the average American home, and I’m guessing this campaign was waged during the post-WW2 building boom when it was becoming apparent they were no longer needed. But as millions of homes were being built across the land, the miracle of mass production created a landmine of financial opportunity for plastic shutter makers, and their marketplace savvy continues to this day. Shutters get slapped on new homes as mindlessly as we guzzle soft drinks, and we seldom stop to consider “why?”

Here’s a common sight: shutters only on the front of the home. Granted, this application in Kirkwood is the proper size with hinges, but it appears they blew the shutter budget on the front, leaving the rest of the windows naked. Meaning, if the big storm comes, only the front windows will survive, and woe onto the rest of the fenestration!

Or we have the mindless application of shutters for shutters’ sake.  Casing for electrical wires serves as a Mason-Dixon Line, though which is Union and which is Confederate is open to individual interpretation.  And this home also covers another common problem…

…fit. Proper shutters demand symmetry for operation, but the windows on modern homes don’t always allow for that. So the Pavlovian response of “must have shutters” creates all manner of remedial, lopsided configurations that we tend to accept as perfectly OK.

Sometimes the placement of a window on a modern home strictly forbids you to install shutters, like the left-hand window, above. To carry on the theme would require ordering custom shutters. Off-the-shelf vinyl shutters in standard sizes average $35-$50 a pair, so this homeowner was willing to spend, say, $90 to trim two windows, but they were not willing to spend custom dollars for that last window. This seems a wise decision when compared to…

…this house down the street in the same Shrewsbury neighborhood. They purchased off-the-rack shutters and installed them with gusto until the “uh oh” moment. I like to imagine the day of installation, where he started installing on the right side of the house, and that moment of dread when he came to the last shutter on the left – dang, it overhangs! “But I can’t stop now! Screw it! Up it goes.” And now a small section of the downspout is protected from the harsh rays of the afternoon sun. Everything works, if you let it.

But I am also intrigued by that primal urge to shutter. They have somehow been instinctively ingrained into the homeowner psyche as something that must be done. From observing some homes, it’s obvious that no thought beyond “must shutter” has been “thunk,” and they had to create an excuse to smooth over an awkward situation. But it’s this mindlessness that fascinates me.

Come the deadly Midwest hurricane, at least one side of this bay window will be spared. Clearly, there is no room or need for shutters on the front of this cute little home, but they were compelled to do so. Which reminds me of a good deed done by a friend who works for a corporate home improvement retailer. This employee once stopped a man from committing mindless shuttering.

The customer had just spent money to have new vinyl siding installed, and so “needed” to replace the old shutters that had been removed during the project. He wanted some help in selecting new vinyl shutters. My friend applied the Socratic Method:
How does your house look with the new siding?
Even with the old shutters gone?
So if it looks nice without them, why puncture your new siding by putting up new shutters?

One could practically see the light bulb go off above his head as he mulled it over. He then said he needed to think about this, and left the store, shutter-less. Bravo! Score one for aesthetic logic!

There is a series of ranch homes in the Affton area that have shutters enforced upon them. The original builder inset the windows in a way that created a need for shutters to complete the frame. One can only remove these shutters by investing in larger, custom-size windows to fill the void. Naturally, it’s cheaper to just buy new shutters. So the original financial agreement between the builder and the shutter vendor remains stronger than a homeowners free will to mold the house in their image.

This homeowner stumbled into the rigidity of this design feature when it was time for replacement windows. For whatever reason, they went with a window shorter in length than the original, so had to create new in-fill at the bottom, and it’s not all that bad. But the new shutters still echo the length of the original window; enthusiasm for jerry-rigging goes only so far?

My favorite category of shutter atrocities is epitomized in this glorious example, above: suspenders and a belt!  This one also evokes the feeling of socks worn with sandals.

Imagine if car manufacturers included mud flaps as a standard feature on all motor vehicles. Yes, mud flaps do serve an actual purpose on a specific type of vehicle, and mud flaps on a Mini Cooper would cause no harm. But it would ruin the line. And they would require some maintenance. And they would get mangy after awhile. While a large majority of new car buyers would motor on without a second thought about the mudflaps, it’s fair to say that maybe a Jaguar owner would step back one day and realize that the mud flaps muss the essence of their refined car, and yank them off, wondering why they left them on for so long. At that moment, mud flap emancipation would feel so sweet!

Shutters are mud flaps.  If they serve no true purpose, yank ’em off, and see if the house looks better without ’em.

Here’s my Number One With A Bullet favorite shutter catastrophe.  On the second level, much money was spent to create and install vertical versions of the John Waters mustache!

And here’s a good example of comically inappropriate shutters vs. no shutters. Are these homeowners purposely breaking free of the shutter shackles? I’d like to think so, but considering the ramshackle state of the rest of this Webster Groves modern ranch (shutters are hanging loose all over), it appears to be that the house itself is lancing the boils, yearning to return to its original shutterless state.

In the early 20s, I worked for a high-end design build firm who were remodeling a Ladue ranch home whose overt Frank Lloyd Wright design had been buried under several remuddles. The new owners wanted that Wright-ness returned. As I was taking before photos, the man told me about the debate he and his wife were having over the shutters: he wanted them removed because they weren’t original while she wanted to replace them with more appropriate versions. He asked for my opinion. I said, “Why pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore this home only to mar it with shutters that were never intended?”  It was silent for a few beats and he replied, “Yeah. Maybe if I agree to buying some Stickley antiques, she’ll back off on the shutters. It’s worth a shot.”

This man is my hero. We need more like him.

20 thoughts on “Shutters – Why?

  1. I’m almost 1 years late for the discussion! Anyone seeing this, please tell me what you would suggest instead of shutters. In a bland suburban ranch, windows without…something…on either side look quite barren, like lidless eyes. Come up with a suitable alternative! I’d be happy to see it.

  2. My husband & I bought a 1908 farmhouse outside of Edenton, NC a year ago. It has vinyl siding & had 48 plastic shutters, many of which has faded & didn’t match the red metal roof. I painted the 1st floor shutters & hired someone to remove, clean & paint the remaining 30 shutters on the top floor. Once the shutter were removed, I couldn’t believe how much more I loved the look of the house! I asked my husband to give me his honest opinion, & we both agreed to have all of the shutters taken down. It was as if previous homeowners had been talked into adding the shutters when the siding was installed years ago. The were all the way around the entire house! Our house now looks the way it probably did (except for the vinyl siding) back in the early 1900s.

  3. I love this article. I live in a really nice suburb of Detroit where virtually every house is totally original mint condition 1950’s mid-century ranch style: my favorite! Except for one little thing that drives me nuts! It’s like the mayor or police chief was a shutter salesman back in the 70’s or something. How else would anyone convince 95% of proud homeowners that they could ‘update’ their expensive new homes by screwing plastic crap on beside one or two of the front windows? Every once in a while while walking my dog I pass a house that either avoided this pervasive trend or had them ripped off later and it looks so nice and clean and pure in comparison to its neighbors that I can’t understand how they don’t see it too. I almost want to print your article out and stick it in every mailbox!

  4. This was such an interesting and entertaining read! I really appreciate it. I have been getting ready to paint my shutters but kept feeling this urge to just rip them down and touch up paint the house instead. This gave me the confidence I needed! I live in an old large farm style house in Imperial, MO. I hate these shutters and even wish someone would have kept the old clapboard look instead of covering the home with vinyl siding, but I digress. Thanks for this great article! It was very funny. I am now so excited to do what I had wanted to do to begin with!

  5. And I was just thinking to add shutters to my red brick ranch style house!! Loved the article, very instructive and amusing………….”But I am also intrigued by that primal urge to shutter. They have somehow been instinctively ingrained into the homeowner psyche as something that must be done. From observing some homes, it’s obvious that no thought beyond “must shutter” has been “thunk,” and they had to create an excuse to smooth over an awkward situation. But it’s this mindlessness that fascinates me.”………Can’t stop laughing!!!

  6. I’d think about painting the white wood siding a shade of sage or light green, to play off the lime green front door. And if the windows are good as is, leave them as is. Adding color to the 2nd level will add visual interest that you feel is now lacking now that your shutters are gone. And thank you for removing them. So brave, so right!

  7. I have been learning the “rules of the road” for shutter use and placement. Thank you for this additional education. However, I am in a disco-fly 1965 traditional 2 story brick veneer and a lovely cantilever 2nd story flanked by white wood siding. There are 5 total windows up top. Double windows on wither side and one in the middle. We took the terrible shutters off but now the windows still need something. I think some extra molding (head?) would look nice but without being a different color (from white) will not stand out. My front door is lime green which I painted. Any suggestions for alternatives to shutters?


  8. Of coarse we all know that real shutters, properly designed, are one the best ways to reduce heat load in the hot humid summers we have in St Louis and conversely allow heat gain in the winter when it’s needed.

  9. agree 100% with this- I work as a draftsman/ illustrator for a developer and it just kills me when he makes me put shutters on everything. I have tried repeatedly to convince him they aren’t appropriate, but no luck- He wants to look “upscale”.

  10. My coworkers are wondering the hell is so funny as I’m reading this. Mudflaps! Suspenders and a belt! Lancing the boil! This is hilarious!

  11. but shutters are just so pretty…like doilies that just get stained or cute handmade hot pads that catch on fire on the stove and torch the flounced valance and just ruin, ruin I tell you, the really fetching framed dried flowers and potpourri somebody’s 3rd cousin sent once.

    reminds me of the DC preservation society’s campaign to educate that brick really ought not be painted and 6 over 6 windows are usu. not historically appropriate. and they were trying to convince a largely aware populace.

    good luck.

  12. Jeff, might I amend your comment to suggest that the building pictured is more suitable for people who have already *been* arrested.

  13. Amen, Toby! God, I hate sutter abuse, and boy is it just about everywhere…

    You should do a post on one of my biggest pet peeves – replacement doors from the big box stores with the god-awful oval windows. WHY do people like these?? I’d rather see a solid, plain metal door that these craptastic things. UGH!

  14. Lynn, it would be an honor to let me do the dirty work if it means saving a good home from bad shutters!
    Jeff, I run screaming from the horror and am looking for a cop to arrest them!

  15. Say, Amen, Somebody! Amen. Re: Dogtown–My eyes!!! Who can I kill for doing this to me? Come to think of it, these mutts remind me of the sh*tty townhouses in too many of the ‘burbs surrounding DC.

  16. I was just getting ready to publish the same link Jeff published! This is the worst application of shutters! No wonder there are yet to be any tenants in the building! The shutters on the front side of the building aren’t much better!
    Loved the post Toby! I too have a severe hatred for improper shutters.
    Now we just need a post on improper awning devices! St. Louis is full of them!

  17. One of the biggest problems I have when describing houses for surveys and National Register work is to remain value-neutral when describing the plastic shutters. not acceptable: “the wide aluminum picture window is flanked by ridiculous fake shutters added by a later owner with no respect for his or her home.”

    Thank you Toby for this essay – I want to print it out and carry copies with me for educational purposes when I’m out and about!

  18. I shudder (ha ha) to think about how many otherwise cool looking buildings have been messed up because of misplaced shutters. The very worst example in St. Louis– far worse than any shown here– is on a cheap, horrid infill development in Dogtown. It’s just north of Clayton Avenue, west of Louisville Ave. Whoever designed such a tragedy should be arrested.

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