Witch Windows: Vermont's Spooky-Ish Architectural Anomaly

A common feature of older farmhouses in certain parts of Vermont, the true purpose of so-called witch windows is somewhat of a mystery. (Photo: Larry Lamsa [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

The vernacular architecture of Vermont, the erstwhile independent country-turned-14th state with one area code and nary a roadside billboard, is a study in rural New England self-sufficiency: sturdy, no-nonsense and demonstrating a strong reliance on familiar, locally available materials.

We're going to make it through another harsh winter and we're going to look damn photogenic while doing so, Vermont's farmhouses, covered bridges and picturesque white-painted churches all seem to scream from along winding country roads. It's truly something straight out of architectural central casting.

Vermont, particularly central Vermont and the Northeast Kingdom, is also home to a curious example of folk architecture that's rarely found elsewhere in New England. And it's one that comes up a lot around Halloween.

Meet the witch window, a Green Mountain State-exclusive phenomenon rooted in both superstition and cold climate practicality — it really depends on who you ask and when.

Witch windows — sometimes referred to as "Vermont windows" during times of the year when pointy black hats and facial boils are less in vogue — are hard to miss: They're full-sized and usually double-hung windows installed on the gable-end of the upper floors of older Vermont homes at a 45 degree angle. Translation: The windows are positioned sideways, running parallel to the slope of a home's rooflines.

For the superstitious, these diagonally oriented second-floor windows function as a practical home security measure — witch-proofing, if you will.

Witch window, vermont
Looks weird, right? To many Vermonters, diagonal windows are a common feature of older homes. They're believed to keep both witches and winter drafts at bay. (Photo: Piledhigheranddeeper [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

You see, it's incredibly cumbersome for broomstick-mounting enchantresses to make direct approaches and landings through a sideways window. Just as any self-respecting witch wouldn't attempt to brew a potion sans newt's eye, attempting to gain entry through a titled window while airborne just doesn't happen. Ever.

"It was thought that a witch could not fly at an angle on its broomstick and she could only fly straight up on her broomstick, so if you angled a window she couldn't fly into a window," architectural historian Britta Tonn recently explained to Burlington-based WCAX News. Referring to witch windows as an "example of regionalism and regional architecture," Tonn goes on to make a very good — if not blatantly obvious — point: "If people were worried about witches coming in through their house, they would have done every window angled, likely not just the one or the two."

It's all very Sarah Winchester meets Normal Rockwell, really.

Whether or not spooky folklore-rich Vermont has historically been home to a disproportionately large number of broom-reliant witchcraft practitioners is largely irrelevant: It's just a funny name for a funny-looking architectural feature.

And as it turns out, "witch" isn't the only Halloween-appropriate descriptor used when referring to these peculiar slanted windows. In Vermont parlance, some natives opt to call them "coffin windows."

As Kathryn Eddy wrote for the Barre Montpelier Times Argus, the coffin backstory is rather hazy, although it likely has to do with the window's rectangular shape. However, some folks claim that the windows were purpose-installed so that 19th-century undertakers could hoist coffins outside and slide them down the roof as an alternative to carrying them down a narrow or twisty interior staircase. How a coffin might wind up on the second story of a home to begin with is anyone's guess, though.

Witch window, vermont
Just like vampires need to be formally invited inside, superstition dictates that broom-straddling witches can't enter a home through a window unless it's vertically positioned. (Photo: Piledhigheranddeeper [CC BY-SA 4.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

Alas, the decidedly more realistic supposed reasons (everyone seems to have a different answer) for Vermont's wealth of wonky windows has little to do with witch deterrence and coffin transport logistics.

Eddy concludes:

...the windows were often placed at the point where an outbuilding or addition was constructed. With the loss of wall and window space, sometimes the only space for an upper-floor window required that it be built at an angle. It allowed for light and ventilation where there would otherwise be none.
The sideways window was generally the window that had to be sacrificed from the old wall and simply reused. Add it to the extensive list of reasons why Vermonters deserve their practical reputation and were going ‘green' — recycling and repurposing — long before it was the trend to do so.

This makes sense for the most part but it still doesn't truly explain why witch windows are something only seen in older buildings in Vermont and nowhere else.

Tonn's theory is very much along the same lines — witch windows are simply the "result of good old fashion Yankee ingenuity and resourcefulness, instead of designing new windows to fit into that space; just rotate an already made one 45 degrees."

Others believe that witch windows functioned as vents of sorts, giving rising hot air a place to escape during not-all-that-brutal Vermont summers. Just crack open your weird sideways window on the second floor and, ahhh, relief.

Witch window, vermont
Dormer windows are relatively rare in older Vermont homes. This home, likely a new build, has both dormer windows and a witch window for a bit of added folk architecture cred. (Photo: piledhigheranddeeper [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

A commenter on WCAX supports this ventilation-centric hypothesis:

It was nice in summer because all the heat from daily cooking or just the heat of the day would rise from the 1st to the second floor venting much of the heat out through that window. Most of the old farm houses had steep pitched roofs which means the upstairs had slanted walls going half way down the walls usually leaving only one wall available for a widow. The stairwell to the 2nd floor was open which meant the little side window provided cross ventilation for the 2nd floor for the heat to escape. That's what my uncle told me.

As for those very-much-all-that-brutal Vermont winters, witch windows were thought to be installed back in the day as a low-cost, no-frills alternative to dormer windows, which are prone to snow and ice accumulation and can be a major source of heat loss during the colder months.

Plus, if you think about it, a tucked away attic-level dormer window is the perfect place for your typical broom-riding hag to gain entry during the middle of the night while the rest of the house sleeps.