Letter Re: Increasing Security for an 1870s House

Hello Jim,
My family and I have been offered a great price on a house ($7K,000 for a 3,400-square-foot two-story house, built in 1876, with a full basement and large backyard–the house was originally on the market for $104,000, but the seller hasn’t had any offers in three years, since the housing market crashed) in a small city with open spaces less than an hour’s walk away if bugging out should become necessary.

However, the bigger appeal of this house is the ample space it provides for us and a few other family members, a large backyard for gardening and the fact that most of the rest of our family is less than a 15-minute drive away (or an hour’s walk–and this hour’s walk would put us out in rural areas). My biggest concerns are the large (six foot wide) picture window on the front of the house, overlooking the front porch, and the front door with large window. The house is in a historic neighborhood, and any improvements to the structure of the house have to fall within certain restrictive guidelines because of the neighborhood in general and the fact that the house itself is on the state register of historic places.

I’m well aware of the prospect of smash-and-grab burglaries, especially in houses with large windows such as this one has, but I wonder what kind of modifications could be made to the windows and doors that would minimize the break-in risks. Would it be practical to add reinforced (possibly even bulletproof/brickproof/etc.) glass behind the picture window, and could you suggest possible modifications to the front door as well?

I’ll add that there are several points inside the house where increasing levels of security leading to a safe room can be established without affecting the historic nature of the structure itself.

The house itself is not particularly conspicuous–it’s in a historic neighborhood, so there are literally hundreds of other structures like it in the area, and there’s not much turnover in terms of residents or home ownership. I’ve lived within four-block of this location for almost eight years, so I’m very familiar with the area. A sizable percentage of this area’s residents have lived here for decades and
have no plans to move, so I don’t think flight to the suburbs or beyond is really a problem, i.e., seemingly few worries that this house will be in the middle of a ghost town if things get bad. I think this house could be a major asset as a “bug-in” location and I’m sure my family isn’t the only one looking to stay put rather than getting out of Dodge. Your advice would be greatly appreciated.

JWR Replies: Windows that large were not made in the 1870s for middle class houses, so that very large picture window that you described surely must be from a much later retrofit. (Six pane sash windows were the norm.) Even with historic preservation codes, you could easily go back to a smaller traditional sash window, and put a pair of “storm” shutters on it. (Hint: See my novel “Patriots” for details on ballistic shutters.) Just so long as it “looks” period, you should be okay.

Ditto for the door. You can have one custom built without a window (or just a very small, high window), out of 4″ thick solid oak.

Convincing the county clipboard minions just takes some historical research. At your local library or online, find pictures that were taken before 1900 of houses built in the 1870s. Be selective, and find pictures of houses with small windows, storm shutters, and stout doors. These photos will be your leverage needed to get permission to restore your house to an authentic 1870s appearance, and that should make the Historic District Authenticity Gnomes happy.

Good luck with your upcoming move and security upgrade project!