Shut It Down: An Exploration of Shutters

My dislike of shutters began in 2013 when I moved back to my hometown of Greensboro, NC. One day I was driving around town and I noticed that nearly every house I passed had shutters – ugly, probably plastic, bolted on the side of the house, stupid shutters. It quickly became the only thing I noticed when I was driving. Anyone who got in my car that entire year had to hear my rant against shutters. I couldn’t understand why they were on every housing style, from ranches to McMansions, small traditional homes and split-levels, all of the houses in Greensboro seemed to have shutters. And it wasn’t only in Greensboro. I started seeing them everywhere I traveled. Drive down to the beach on back-country roads, and you’ll see tons of ranch houses with shutters, shutters, shutters.

Historically, shutters were functional. Shutters are first thought to have been used in medieval Europe, when home dwellers would open their solid wood shutters to let light and air in and then close and lock them for security. During the Elizabethan era, shutters were used to cover the bottom of a half glass window. Once full glass windows became affordable and in vogue, shutters were used to block out light and heat but also to protect the glass. Many shutters were louvered or slatted to deflect rain and still allow air and daylight into a home.

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Photo Credit: VixenHill.com

If you drive through the old part of Chapel Hill off of East Rosemary Street today, you’ll see many examples of beautiful functioning shutters that add panache to a home. Even if these shutters aren’t used, they are at least installed correctly and could be used. After months of fieldwork (me driving around) critiquing shutters and a little internet research, I came up with my acceptable shutter criteria:

  1. They have to make sense. For instance, if you have a giant picture window with shutters on either side, that does not make sense. If you tried to close those shutters you would only cover a fraction of the window.
  2. Shutters should be on hinges that attach to the outer window casing, or if that’s not possible, at least make it look realistic. If you’re going to fake it, at least do it well.
  3. Do not bolt shutters to the siding of your house.

But thinking about functional shutters, particularly on older homes, didn’t answer the real question: why are shutters on practically every single house built after 1940? It took me over a year, but I finally found the answer after my brother gave me Virginia Savage McAlester’s A Field Guide to American Houses. In the article on Ranch houses, she writes:

The FHA (Federal Housing Administration) discouraged a pronounced modern appearance in the homes they helped finance. Thus builders frequently added modest bits of traditional detailing, usually loosely based on Spanish, French, or English Colonial precedents. Decorative window shutters are the most common of these.1

When I read that line (parenthesis and emphasis mine) it was like I could finally breathe again. All of these shutters were the work of the government. Not only did the FHA loans lead to shutters on nearly all new houses (to comply with a less modern appearance dictated by the loans) but they made shutters commonplace. In the past 70 years, their popularity has not waned. But my rant finally has an ending: don’t worry everyone, I can now say it was the government!

In the two years since the moment of shutter clarity, I have continued to reflect on the many parts of my built environment and communities that are a certain way because of external forces, like financial institutions and government. As planners, we’re asked to solve problems and we have to understand how those problems came to be before we can begin to dig in and offer solutions. There’s probably no way to solve the shutter problem, but my obsessive hatred has taught me it’s worthwhile to continue to look beyond what I see and ask why things are the way they are.

McAlester, Virginia. A Field Guide to American Houses , Second ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 600.

Featured Image: Photo Credit: Better Homes and Gardens.

About the Author: Gwen Barlow is a first-year Master’s degree candidate in City and Regional Planning. A native of Greensboro, she graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2012 with a degree in History and Southern Studies. She is currently applying to the UNC Law School for next fall to begin a dual degree in Planning and Law. Her interests include sustainable real estate development, historic preservation, and watching television.