It was the destruction of Detroit’s historic J. L. Hudson Company Department Store that set Jim Turner on a career path to preserve old windows. Hudson’s had 2.1 million square feet of floor space with 32 floors and a world-record breaking 705 fitting rooms. In Detroit’s heyday, Hudson’s sold the height of fashion and anchored the downtown winter holiday season. But by 1983, it had closed. Jim, board president of Preservation Wayne in Detroit, argued restoring the building could drive economic development.
The city demolished it for the same reason, hoping that clearing space in downtown would encourage the builders to come. It didn’t. The lot Hudson’s stood on, Turner points out, is empty to this day.
That experience galvanized preservation experts and Jim spearheaded forums showing people how they could affordably develop historic properties using tax credits. He worked on houses too. And as a gift, the owners of one of those houses gave him a two week immersion course at Pine Mountain Settlement School in Kentucky so he could become an expert at restoring historic wood and steel windows.
Why focus on windows? That part of the story is rooted in his childhood in Ecorse Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. The oldest of 12 children, his family lived in low-income housing not far from a major steel mill as well as Ford and General Motors plants. Seeking quiet, he would walk along the streets, looking at single-family homes wondering what it would be like to live in one.
He could see through the windows to a different future.
“Looking at life from the streetscape and the rhythm of housing and housing stock – that could comfort you and warm you and make you feel secure in the surface that faced the street. Oftentimes, even today when I’m new in a community, I’d rather walk that community because I learn more about its character.”
When he was drafted into the army, his mother bought a 1919 house in Detroit. The city is full of such homes as well as historic commercial structures that could be restored and preserved as an investment in the city’s future. He cites The Restoration Economy by Storm Cunningham and The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones in making his case.
“We need to recognize the age of country and the age of the housing stock and the buildings we have and how we can best restore them and we can create job opportunity by moving towards a green economy – or a restorative economy,” he said. “Because it becomes a sustainable ethic or ethos. By doing so, we put people back to work instead of letting people go. We don’t have to do it in the context of creating – we are recreating what we already have.”
As far as steel windows go, Jim contends they are as easy to restore as wood ones although many working in wood believe otherwise, he said. With wood, you can cut a dutchman or patch and glue it into place. Working with metal windows is much the same except that instead of cutting wood and gluing you are cutting metal and welding.
“In many instances, if they employed the same craftsmanship and understanding of the metal window, they could do the work as efficiently and professionally as they are doing in wood.”
Learn more about restoring steel windows from Jim at our upcoming Window Hero Webinar on Tuesday, March 24. Please sign up for the free webinar.
Jim is an adviser in Michigan for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He said he’s repaying the gift he received to become a steel windows preservation expert by working as the Executive Director of Samuel Plato Academy of Preservation Trades in Louisville, Kentucky.