The Practical Magic of Vermont’s Witch Windows — And Why Every House Could Use One
A common feature of rural Vermont farmhouses are so-called “witch” or “coffin” windows. They’re eminently noticeable, tilted sideways to fit parallel with the roof line. Once an observer learns the curious names that locals have for these windows, they become impossible to forget. A portal for a magical being? The final exit a body takes before burial? Did I hear you correctly?
Despite the creepy connotations, witch windows actually have a pragmatic history, and an abiding place in modern farmhouse decor. In fact, the commonsense usefulness of these crooked windows might just be the most alluring thing about them.
Witch windows earned their spooky monikers over generations of oral history — and like a decades-long game of telephone, much has been lost in translation. The most common explanation for “witch windows” is that they are angled just so that witches can’t fly their broomsticks through them. However, Devin Colman, the state architectural historian of the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, has also heard a different take: Folks added crooked windows just in case an evil spirit needed to get out of the house.
These wonky windows are also called Vermont windows, (which is a misnomer, as they can also be found in New Hampshire, Maine, and other states) crooked windows, and lazy windows. “Coffin window,” meanwhile, comes from the grim idea that undertakers chose to take that route if someone died at home.
As Vermont’s official architectural historian, Colman is asked about them often, so he has looked extensively into the folklore around witch windows. A recent historic newspaper search yielded an account of a different kind: Seen around Pennsylvania Dutch settlements, “witch’s windows” are decoys painted on windowless barns intended to befuddle unwelcome witches, per a 1946 article in the Richmond, Virginia, Times Dispatch.
But after years of searching for references to the crooked windows in New England, no formative explanation has turned up. “The best explanation I’ve come across for ‘why’ is that Vermont has a very old housing stock,” Colman says.
Farmhouses first built in the early or mid-1800s would get new additions, frequently as a single story or wing built off of a back or side wall, he explains. These smaller, new wings would leave a narrow strip of wall between the new roof and the original eaves, just slim enough to accommodate a horizontal window.
Often, builders repurposed the standard windows they had just removed from the knocked-down wall, tilting them to fit in the newly created space.
“It’s just a really practical solution to getting some more daylight,” Colman says.
Given the mundanity of that origin story, it makes sense that locals spun tall tales to explain the quirky windows. Particularly at a time when many folks have been even more homebound and frugal than usual, it’s not hard to appreciate the practical magic of witch windows. Vermonters certainly do: Colman has seen contemporary construction projects with intentionally designed crooked windows. And look at Weird Window, a new craft brewery that opened in a warehouse of South Burlington, in homage to the rural vernacular — off-kilter windows included.
“Historic buildings are special because they inform you about where you are,” Colman says. From farmhouses with witch windows, it’s a lesson from prudent New Englanders on the simple joy of bringing home more natural light.