The discussion of some small high-up windows from Sunday’s post reminded me, ironically of one my favorite architectural features, Transom Windows.
I think that most of us know that these are windows which are usually separated by a thick piece of wood running horizontally. If you don’t know, this horizontal element is a transom. If there’s a vertical thick piece of wood separating windows, it is known as a mullion.
But, we are going to look at transom windows, or technically what is referred to in architect-speak as a “transom light.”
Window = Light in architect-speak
The windows that flank doors sometimes go with transoms, but not necessarily. These are side-lights. I’ve never heard the term “mullion windows.”
sidelights flanking a traditional door
While we’re discussing terminology. The things that separate window panes are muntins.
I am not sure how far back transom windows go, but I do know that they were very popular in the 18th and 19th century.
And I hope that they still are, because I think they add so much beauty and light to our interiors.
Artist’s Wife by the window- Carl Vilhelm Holsøe – transom window-19th century
The late 19th century Danish artist, Carl Vilhelm Holsøe is known for his impressionistic paintings, almost exclusively of women in domestic settings with their back or side facing us. They are soft, contemplative and feel calming, somehow.
Many of the scenes are in his home and one of his favorite subjects is his wife.
But, here’s one of his daughter, Inge
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Drawing Room. The Four Copper Rings, 1905, Oil on canvas, 64 x 61 cm, Private Collection – the redlist
Hammershoi is another Danish artist who lived at the same time as Holsøe. Obviously, they influenced each other. In fact, I found out that he was the original artist of the painting in my bathroom. (you can see it by clicking the link)
But, that’s not the only reason why I’m posting this painting. Over the door is another element that if it were glass, would be a transom window. But since it’s solid, it’s called an Overdoor.
Overdoors, were very popular in the time of the Louis Kings.
Vogue Living Magazine
This is from a Paris apartment showing an over-door.
You can see more beautiful overdoors here and here. (and some lovely transoms too) And this post has a lot of very beautiful overdoors. Please note that an over door does not require a transom. And many of them are painted or are in bas-relief.
But, let’s get back to transom windows.
They can go over any door or window, interior or exterior.
The shape can be either rectangular of a semi-circle (arch) or occasionally a square. I have also seen, particularly in European architecture, other shapes such as a camel-shape and others.
The original function and still is today is to add light to a space and sometimes ventilation.
Is there always a big window or door beneath a transom window?
That’s a good question, but no, there is usually, but it’s not an absolute. However, if not, there should be some other built-in feature like a cabinet or some reason that they are where they are; not just stuck up there.
Let’s begin with some exterior transom windows and then we’ll move inside.
Brooks Falotico via Dering Hall
I adore this transom window and here we have a traditional feature which looks like it’s made of wood, but this ornamental muntin is often lead and the glass is leaded glass, usually with a bevel.
Number 10 Downing Street is the headquarters and London residence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom – Fan transom window over a heavily lacquered black front door- photo: Sergeant Tom Robinson
Sarah D on Flickr transom window over iron door, Charleston, SC
Back Bay, Marlborough St. Boston leaded glass transom window over front door
Another David Fuller beauty shot in his native Boston.
pair of 18th century Louis XV provencal doors with original transom window via first dibs
Okay, now that the drool bucket is full, let’s go inside and empty it out and then we can fill it up again with more transom window candy.
Several months ago, after I did this post about window treatments for difficult windows, someone not-very-kindly informed me that transom windows are ALWAYS for ventilation.
Well, that’s not true because many transom windows are not designed to open.
Actually, here in the northeast, they are rarely installed for ventilation, unless it’s a very old building. In fact, I do recall that my elementary school in Evansville, IN had this type of large transom window that open up from the top. Sadly, they demolished that old building. Ahhh… the boiler was always breaking down.
Here are the three main ways that transom windows used for ventilation are hinged.
You can purchase these types of hinges at the House of Antique Hardware.
old town home working transom window over door
This is from an excellent blog post which explains how they put in this ventilation transom window.
Hendricks-Churchill – Creative Renovations Hallway – doors with working transom windows –
photo – John Gruen
Transom Window Master-Shower-Tim Barber architect – photo- Karyn Millet Photography
A shower is an excellent place for a ventilation transom window!
Oh, and I just found a wonderful example of windows from this same home in Tim Barber’s portfolio that are like transom windows and don’t have a big window underneath.
Brilliant! And why aren’t more bathrooms fitted with this type of window? Then, no one would have to worry about window treatments or lack of privacy unless you neighbors are climbing trees. ;]
The rest of the transom windows will be non-working and installed for additional light.
porch in New Orleans with transom windows
I made this graphic showing a before and after from Tim Barber’s portfolio. Whoa! Love this!
One last one from Tim Barber. I chose this one because I love the way the overdoor lines up with the transom window on the big French doors. Please note, that as I originally said in the post about difficult windows, that the window treatment almost always goes ABOVE the transom. The only time it can’t that I can think of, is if the transom window opens in.
philip_or_flop on instagram – before and after transom window
This young man is doing his own renos and posting them on instagram.
Isn’t this fun?
Urban Grace gorgeous new-traditional dining room – exquisite transom window. Erika Powell has been one of my favorite young designers for close to decade. In fact, she did have a blog, but gave it up a few years ago. Most likely, the combination of a thriving biz and taking care of babies, forced her to give up one of them, I’m presuming.
But, if I would be reincarnated as a transom window, I think this one above would be it.
But, I’m torn because it might also be this one. So beautiful! I think that they make the room. And I love how Katie Ridder makes a subtle reference in the ottoman fabric. That is great design!
I also adore these transom windows with a neo-classical motif
This is a room by architect William T Baker and interior design Suzanne Kasler. Dream team! I’ve met Suzanne a couple of times and Bill and I were on a tour together at High Point two years ago.
He is the nicest most down-to-earth guy and wanted to know all about my blogging and how i make money. haha.
(if you click on the link above, you’ll see our group and Suzanne! I felt like a princess. I even dropped my slipper. lol (typical) Unfortunately, I was a dumb-A and forgot to bring another pair of comfy shoes. (lesson learned!) I kept hoping that my prince would find it for me, but alas, that did not happen. ;]
I’m closing with an image of the Women’s club here in Bronxville where I live. It’s a lovely Beaux-Artes building with elegant windows and transoms.
For many more examples of transom windows throughout this blog,
click here and you see an entire page of posts.
First of all, I love your blog and your humor. I’ve learned SO much from you.
Second, I have a tricky window for which I’m trying to figure out window treatments. In a dining room, there are 2 windows side by side that have interior plantation shutters. Above the windows is a half moon transom that extends to the ceiling. The trim next to the transom is very wide. My client wants drapes to give drama to the room, but this would require the “short” rods so as not to extend the rod across the window above. The second option is to hang drapes from the ceiling. Do you have any suggestions?? Do I just suggest to forget drapery completely?
Well, you can’t make a silk purse out of pain in arse window. And, not every disease has a cure. But, without seeing precisely what you are talking about, it’s impossible to give advice. Good luck with that! I feel your pain.
I love tall ceilings so I have been looking at which types of windows look best with them. What are the options beside transom windows and tall windows? I would love to see a post on tall windows.
Well, if they’re super tall, you can do clerestory windows, perhaps, or mouldings. I would put in the search term in pinterest and see what you come up with. Unfortunately, it’s a tiny percentage of readers who have this “problem.” Or, like I tell other people, if you’re having an issue or want to know more about something, try googling it. I am more apt to write a post on how to make your ceiling appear higher. And have done so a few times.
Sorry I’m late to the party. But I finally found some quiet time to read your post.
Thank you for the great history lesson & pictures.
They sure don’t make them like that anymore.
Unless you’re the type that doesn’t have a budget & can afford a custom built home with all the mill work & windows. Ahhhh to dream.
Indeed about dreaming, not the party!
What a fascinating post!
Our 1870s farmhouse has transom windows above every interior door. It doesn’t look like they ever operated, but they do allow the halls to be lighter and brighter, even when all the doors are closed.
We have a barn full of “spares,” too, for some inexplicable reason. Weird, as they’re intact and in generally good condition.
That’s interesting about the spares in the barn. It sounds like they were maybe replaced for some reason?
Hi there, Laurel!
I’ve been admiring your posts, wit and wisdom for the past few years! I noticed the David Fuller picture of the light blue door with the demilune-shaped (transom) window above it. If it were a single (or double) window with the demilune above, would it be a Palladian window, or does a Palladian require extra windows on both sides (outside of) the demilune? Additionally, how do you hang panels with that particular style window? Above the demilune or just beneath it? Sorry for so many questions. I have a friend who says her decorator friend swears that they should be hung beneath the demilune (but above the windows proper) but I just don’t think it looks right. I’m thinking that the curtains should, when closed, cover all of the glass- regardless of shape, so that it’s more in scale with the wall. Sorry for all of the questions.
I’m with you, Melissa. :]
A beautiful post! We are lucky to have a transom over our back door which also has side lights. It lets lots of light into the back part of the foyer. I love transoms and overdoors, too! Most of the rooms upstairs have transoms which I am sure allowed air to circulate in our 1910 house. Great post! XO
Thanks so much Nancy!
I enjoy reading your posts. I learn so much and am inspired by them. I like transom windows when done right. The transoms in the photos have beautiful proportions and add so much beauty. When we moved into our house, it had these awful transoms, each with one small glass pane that barely let in enough light. (What was the point of that?) The width of the glass pane in the transom did not line up with the width of the glass in the door below. The transoms were a total mismatch to the also-ugly doors. The whole ensemble was cheap-looking and not in keeping with the rest of the house. I am sorry I don’t have a photo to share for you to use in a what-not-to-do post. We ended up replacing the transoms and doors. It was a bit expensive, so we held off on other projects, but it was totally worth it. Getting a new sofa is not so satisfying when the architectural elements in a room are not right.
Keep up the good work. Your email in my inbox is a ray of sunshine.
Oh, that’s so sweet of you to say Ana! That’s the goal I have in mind and I’m pretty self-critical. But, YES!!! How many times have I gone on and on about the architecture of a room?!? That’s why when somebody asks me what a paint color is (which I usually don’t know), 9 times out of 10, I’m thinking what they really mean is what a wonderful piece of architecture. That’s because what is appealing to them is the entire space as a whole. But, it’s easiest to focus on the wall color as being the cure-all; it’s not.
Ah, transoms. They are so magical. Our 1916 home has many neat features, but sadly no transoms. I’m most inspired by the Heidi Piron kitchen that you shared, probably because I’ve got a gut reno of our kitchen coming up. I live in an urban neighborhood and our kitchen windows look directly into our neighbors’ kitchen, but the sheer cafe curtain might be a perfect option to let light in but maintain privacy.
The cafe curtains are nice. We did them for the Bronxville kitchen which you can see here.
I hope you don’t mind, but I am prone to random acts of art history and I thought you might be interested in a few art historical tidbits about windows, transoms, and doors? In the artworks you selected, the women and girls were traditionally shown indoors, grounded in the domestic world. However, since antiquity (I’m thinking Roman wall painting, here) windows, doors, and transoms all signify transition—from one state of being to another. Notice how Holsøe’s wife is contemplating the outside world from her domestic setting? Look at the rectangles and how she’s trapped in a box? See the little girl against the open window? Will she go forth into the world? Look at the play of rectangles in Strandgade’s work and next time you contemplate this image, think about all those open doors and framing devices this woman must navigate. Plus, in Roman wall painting, an open transom is an opportunity granted from above. (now don’t you really love those little windows?) Thanks for letting me inject an art historical moment and thanks for doing an intelligent design blog – you’ve elevated the craft.
Oh, I love that Rhonda! Art history was my favorite subject– ever in college, but it was mostly because of the charismatic professor. And funny, it was a community college in Los Altos Hills, CA. (Foothill College). But, he brought the subject to life with beautiful music and his interesting, oft-zany stories. My favorites were how he would smuggle his camera into a museum to get his own shots which of course, were taken surreptitiously.
I am usually late to the party after going to this site to check if a new post is up. Also, I’ve hit another chaotic patch in my life.
Okay, I love Laurel’s original post because I feel there cannot be enough light in any house.
But Rhonda’s comment made me think of literary theory. These spaces are called liminal because they…
“Liminal Space Definition. You can define liminal space in several different ways. It’s talked about as a threshold, and indeed, the etymology of liminal comes from the Latin root word “limen,” which means threshold. Liminal spaces are transitional or transformative spaces.”
“Extract. (L limen , ‘threshold’) A term much used in anthropology and literary and cultural theory to designate a space or state which is situated in between other, usually more clearly defined, spaces, periods or identities”
Liminal spaces can lead to an optimistic response or one in which a person is neither here/he nor there. For example, a mixed race person inhabits a liminal space which s/he is never settled. S/he can never be sure if the people around him/her will accept them as what they are or exclude them from the cultural/ethnic group.
Thank you Ramona!
I’m still mopping up the drool. I have always loved transom windows. Wow, imagine owning that house in the photo above the 10 Downing St door shot. That is one gorgeous home.
I wish that we could’ve spent more time in London last fall. It was in heaven…
I loved this post. It has always been my dream to live in a house that looks like the first one, in a beautiful old, established neighborhood. Thanks for all the fun, Laurel. I learn so much from you.
Well, when you do get your dream home Connie, please invite me over! :]
These are gorgeous examples of transom windows.
For a future topic, what types of window treatments work best for oval windows? Odd shaped windows?
In my experience, oval, round, hex, etc windows are usually found in bathrooms or high up in an entry. Or, sometimes high up in a double story space. If privacy is an issue, I would probably do the window film or some kind of leaded glass if that’s appropriate for the space.
Nice article, Laurel! I love transom windows. We’d hoped to have one above a fixed sash in our new bathroom but the details just didn’t work out.
By the way, may I suggest that Kilian Hardware in Philadelphia is a great source for window hardware. They have a lot of hard-to-find items for traditional windows. Their website (kilianhardware.com) is a little hard to navigate, but worth it! (Look under hardware– then window hardware). And they are very helpful on the phone.
Thanks so much for the resource!
I grew up in the Boston area in older homes that had great architectural details including many types of transom windows – some that were for ventilation and opened from the top and some only to allow in more light.
Here is a pithy link about muntins, mullions, and let’s not forget astragels (oh my) http://mgerwingarch.com/m-gerwing/2011/01/18/muntin-v-mullion-architects-glossary
Oh, I love Boston architecture! My son lives there and it’s always fun to visit.
Love this post and love transom windows. Only you would devote yourself to such a topic and offer us such variety and beauty. Thank you.
Thank you so much Gaye!
What timing! Hubby and I just went to a salvage shop looking at old windows and I am going to see if I can add a transom between my kitchen and dining. I refuse to buy vinyl windows, so am looking at buying some old ones and putting character back in our 1900 farmhouse. Someone took the old house character and added 80s oak trim. It’s coming out! Great post as usual!
Thanks Korina. And ugh, hate it when they do that. I know that you’ll restore it to its former beauty!
Thanks for a great post. When people take an 1800 farmhouse and add 1980 elements (or things from a big box store-like a cheap door) I call it “remuddling”. It disturbs me way more than is normal. Kudos to the OP who is looking for old windows! So rare that people bother to give the house what it deserves.
We have a great architectural salvage place in Ithaca that has windows and just about everything else-and classes on how to restore old windows. It’s a fantastic resource for everything.
I love transom windows and years and years ago a builder friend of mine put them in a home office area-above windows looking into the other parts of the house-and they looked great and added so much light.
Also wanted to add that I’ve seen transom window above the main door to barns (mostly in Maine and occasionally in NY State). I think this adds so much character to a barn-
Thanks for a great post
Yes! REMUDDLING! A term, I have often used and heard somewhere. Maybe design school? But, I’m with you in spades. It sickens me to see that kind of desecrating act done to a precious antique. One of my favorite jobs was around 2000-01 where wonderful clients renovated an 1800 farmhouse and their architect was fantastic. It is the house in this post. https://laurelberninteriors.com/ranch-home-boxy-low-ceilings-boring-hope/
Thank you for this feast to the eyes! Transoms may be my very favorite architectural feature! I fell in love with them as a kid growing up in the Southwest in a Spanish colonial house (with arches everywhere), but my friend lived in a Victorian, restored to include transoms. I think it was the first time I’d ever seen them – Love at first sight! What is it that makes them so attractive?
Well, any moulding makes things more attractive, IMO. Plus, it takes the eye up and elongates the window and lets in more light.All good things.
here in arkansas, we don’t bother with wood or lead muntins and leaded glass; we prefer vinyl decoration that you can pull right on off so you can wash yer windas. lol
now could you please do one on plantation shutters? i’ve been thinking divided ones might be the way to go with a window situation we have (need privacy below-need light above), but the prior post regarding the cost of shuttering the three little windows freaked me right on out. and even though i love the look of plantation shutters, the ones i find online, even if wood, look so…vinyl!
thanks again for the pretty post; this daughter of an architect appreciated it.
Wait. We just did shutters. And they would be plantation shutters as opposed to hurricane shutters. I guess. Sorry, that one is exceedingly unlikely. First of all, in all of my years in this business, have NEVER done them, so it’s not an area of expertise, in any way. No experience whatsoever. When clients find out that it’s going to be the cost of year’s tuition in an ivy league college, they abandon it– every time. We usually ended up doing wood blinds.
The other thing is that they are quite difficult to install, I’ve been told repeatedly. Still, they make them, so someone must be buying them. I imagine that they are far more popular in the south. Well, I know that they are.
But, my rec is that you google about them because I’m sure that much has already been written.
Operable door transoms were popular in row houses and old buildings to bring light and air into the interior but disappeared from commercial buildings and apartments (which are considered commercial) because of building codes (they are considered a fire hazard).
They disappeared from exterior walls in residential houses for a variety of reasons==mostly cost and changing tastes, and they weren’t that common in the ordinary home in the first place. Many 19th century window were very tall, and windows became less vertical and more horizontal and boxy by mid-century, in part to go with the boxy Cape Cods and linear ranch houses of the day and their lower ceilings.
Old tall double=hung windows functioned much like a transom–the top was lowered to let out hot air and the bottom was raised to bring in cool air. Most people never drop the top sash because modern triple-track storms and.built-in screens usually don’t have screens on top.
The high horizontal window was popular in bedrooms mid-century, but they are not really transoms. They fell out of fashion (curtains or blinds for such windows are a pain) and no longer meet fire egress standards.
Do you write textbooks for a living, by any chance? lol
This is absolute eye candy! I always love your blogs because I learn so much.
Thanks so much Michelle!
Hello Laurel, thanks for a beautiful post! The images are very inspiring. I’m wondering if you would do transom windows with an 8 foot ceiling or if they would look too narrow? let say over french doors? Thanks!
That’s a good question. And I think that there needs to be at least a nine-foot ceiling for it to look right. A standard door is 6′-8″ and with the door casing about seven feet tall. And if you’re going to have transoms, you’ll need a crown moulding. No, there really isn’t enough room.
I grew up in a big Victorian house (five fireplaces!) where each interior door had a working transom. My mother explained to us that for privacy or to keep heat in the rooms, the Victorians shut the doors, and so the closed transoms were to provide some light into the halls. In summer the transoms were always open because heat rises and then would go out of the room through the transom. Also they provide a wonderful cross-ventilation with the open windows. As a child, I used to stand in the stream of air being sucked up and out through the open transom. (NO air-conditioning, of course!)
What wonderful memories of what sounds like a fabulous old home!
You are my Transom window today.
How something apparently simple can change and improve the whole look of a room or even a house is pure art 😀
Is that the title of a song? 😀
Love how Phillip added the trim to the windows in the farthest room so they matched the scale of the new transoms in the hallway!
Yes, and this is his hobby. But he does seem to know what he’s doing.
I literally just last week had to make the decision whether to go with 8’ tall patio doors or standard 6’8” tall patio doors with transoms above,,,,(with a 9’ ceiling). I was so tormented, and finally decided I wouldn’t be able to live without transoms. Now you write this post and I am so vindicated. The architectural element they add is just so gorgeous.
You’re right in my brain!!!! Every post!!!
Oh wow! How fabulous that’s going to be. It’s funny, but my doors are eight feet and they are original. I do love them, too.
Sigh, so, so beautiful.
I have never seen one with a screen.
I’m wondering if they have the same problem we do. We have a rowhome with a skylight where you pull a chain and it opens to ventilate the room.
I never considered what it might let IN while letting steam OUT.
Perhaps they get classier bugs like butterflies, lol.
Good point. I think that a screen would be necessary. I can’t tell if there are screens in the bathroom with the three windows. I hope so!