Windows on Display

Whether contemporary in design or modeled after something historic, the work of William Parry is the epitome of high-end craftsmanship. Though sometimes the best thing about his windows is you don’t see them at all.

When Edward Miller and Monina von Opel wanted an unbroken twelve-foot-wide by seven-foot-high view of Chilmark’s Quitsa Pond from the house they were building just above it, they were told they should look for Chilmark’s Will Parry. And so they did.

They found him – soft-spoken and bespectacled – in his pristine William Parry Windows Company studio off of Middle Road. In it are select pieces of engaging, old-school woodworking machinery still in use: some French, some German, some American – from companies like Oliver Machinery in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Greenlee of Rockford, Illinois. There is a mortise chisel to make tight fits for window sashes and a shaper to give design to window mullions. Nothing is out of place in Will Parry’s studio.

Will is serious about what he does. The studio’s only decorations are a sculpture of a fish by Richard Erickson of Edgartown, a few horseshoe-crab shells, and an oversized, faded Department of Defense map of the world. When he is painstakingly cutting Guatemalan mahogany window sashes, he wants no distractions. He does not want a distracting crew either. He works with just two assistants – his son Cameron (when he is not in Africa studying the oral traditions of tribes in Ghana) and Jerry Caton, a former crab fisherman in the Aleutians turned window-maker.

“The genius of Parry,” says client Edward Miller, “is that he can take an architect’s dream and make it happen.”

He has produced doors and windows influenced by various styles – such as Japanese, American Arts and Crafts, and German Bauhaus in one Vineyard Haven kitchen. In Oak Bluffs, he built an octagonal cupola designed by architect Robert Skydell for a Camp Ground cottage at the corner of Nashua and Wamsutta avenues. The Edgartown Art Gallery has Gerritt C. Conover–designed windows with antique curved glass above rounded raised mahogany panels that Will built, and there are Parry windows like those in a tugboat pilot house (designed by Tom Tate of Vineyard Haven) at the Makonikey home of Peter Farrelly (one of the moviemaking Farrelly brothers).

In an earlier life when he lived and worked in New York, Will did window frames for the Brill Building just north of Times Square, where such Broadway composers as Irving Berlin once had their offices; for the Apollo Theater on 125th Street; for sculptor Joel Shapiro; and for the Leo Castelli Galleries on West Broadway, renowned then for pop art. For TV late-night host David Letterman’s Tribeca apartment, he fashioned windows that cut out the street noise from below, while for Berlin Holocaust Memorial architect Peter Eisenman he constructed interior sliding room-dividers in a Bleecker Street loft.

Rarely, however, does Will actually meet his illustrious clients, since he makes and assembles the windows in his shop, using glass that he buys from the Solar Seal Company of South Easton, Massachusetts.

“Will is the most meticulous craftsman I’ve ever worked with,” Bob Skydell says.

Will Parry’s reputation has brought architects like Peter Rose of the Department of Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design to him to make the window frames and doors of his designer houses, not only on the Vineyard but in Sharon, Connecticut; New York City; and Stowe, Vermont.

One of Will’s most recent jobs was on a Peter Rose–designed home that lies low, but looks out over Chilmark’s Stonewall Beach. The architect wanted uninterrupted vistas. He wanted to bring the outdoors in – the mist, the cliffs, the surf, the circling shore, the grasses, and the wild rose bushes.

What Will had done at Quitsa Pond for Edward Miller, Monina von Opel, and their architect Paul Kreuger of Boston was similar. There, double-glazed sliding doors – each panel weighing 400 pounds and together measuring twelve-and-a-half feet – noiselessly move to open and closed positions, pulled by handles of nickel-plated bronze. These were designed in Germany and resemble those on airplanes. The handles lift and lower the doors to assure a watertight fit. (Will also made polished hemlock doors in the living room of the house that fit so perfectly they could be secret doors.)

For his Stonewall Beach project, Peter Rose wanted not only sliding doors offering splendid views, but corner windows where no wooden support would break that view. He asked Will if he could make them, and Will did.

“The windows are outside the plane of the building,” Will explains. “They’re supported on the inside by exposed steel girders. These replace the traditional wooden supports.”

These are in the dining room, the second story guest room, and guest library of the house. In the dining room, the window is sixteen feet long and
six feet high with three sashes. The living room window, though not a corner one, is even longer – affording a twenty-five-foot view of the ocean. The glass panes consist of two one-quarter-inch pieces of glass with five-eighths of an inch of air space between them. Will chose the glass’s thickness for the wind resistance; since the windows are so long, they are constructed to flex in high wind. But even though the glass is thicker than ordinary, you still hear the roar of the ocean.

“Will is one of the few people I know who loves to experiment and push limits. But like a scientist or an engineer, he understands when to stop,” Peter Rose says. “He’s inventive and thoughtful and, for me, working with Will is one of the pleasures of building a house.”

Will fell into window-making quite accidentally when he moved to the Vineyard in 1972 with his friend Kirk Briggs of Vineyard Haven. They had met in Naval flight school in Pensacola, Florida. On the Island, they both went to work in construction for Spencer Hilton of Chilmark. Then they decided to build a house for themselves.

“We used a log house design and built a four-bedroom, two-story post and beam on Weaver Lane in Vineyard Haven, but when it came time to do the windows, I didn’t see anything that struck my fancy.

It was during the energy crisis, and I wanted them to be energy-efficient, so I constructed them that way,” Will says.

But Will was a native of Forty Fort, Pennsylvania, a small town in the northeastern part of the state where his father had had a milk processing plant. Will had attended Penn State University and graduated as a math major in 1969. Since it was the time of the Vietnam War, he had gone into the Naval flight program just after graduation. Then he had spent five years on the Vineyard. He decided it was time to go home, so he sold his share of the house to Kirk, who still lives there with his wife and family.

Back in Pennsylvania, his father’s dairy business had ended, so Will moved into the empty dairy building and bought the machinery to manufacture doors and windows. This kind of work had interested him ever since the Weaver Lane house. In time, he went to work for a Wilkes Barre architect, Peter Bowen. “One of the houses he did was for Bill Gates,” Will says. “And he’s done buildings for Trinity College and Yale University and the University of California. I did the windows for a Girl Scout Center in Philadelphia for him. It was he who really gave me my start.”

But on the Vineyard, Will had met Kathleen Cameron, who had grown up summers at Gay Head (now Aquinnah). Will and Kathleen decided to marry and move to New York. Will opened a woodworking shop in Long Island City and began doing restoration work on old houses, while Kathleen taught art in a French high school in Manhattan. But by 1986, they had two small children and decided the Vineyard would be a better environment for them, so they returned, moving into a house Kathleen had in Chilmark.

Today, Will is the proud captain of Truck 121 of the North Road Fire Station and their home is on Middle Road in Chilmark. The house has grown over the years, whenever Will has made a mistake or particularly liked a window he had made for someone else and decided he wanted one or two of them for himself.

“I had an order for four windows once that appealed to me. They were arched windows, seven feet high and six feet across, with arched French doors for a sunroom in Bronxville, New York. I liked them so much that I made seven of them, traded one, and kept two for my own house,” he says. “I added a new downstairs bedroom to accommodate one and the other went into my daughter’s upstairs bedroom.”

He also worked some windows from the David Letterman job into his house. “His building was a New York landmark. That meant the window I made had to look like a regular double-hung window. To keep out the sound, though, it had to be a tilt-turn,” he says, explaining that “a tilt-turn tilts in from the top and is hinged at the bottom, but it can also open like a door. It allows you to have heavy steel hardware all around the sash – strong enough to support heavy glass that will diminish the sound when the window is closed….Working on it, I made two prototypes. Those ended up, too, in the downstairs-addition bedroom with the arched windows.”

Will has a particular interest in how much sound travels through windows. “One of the reasons this – and other – sound-attenuation projects fascinated me was because my brother was a nuclear submarine captain, and silence, of course, is what nuclear subs are all about,” he says.

“Then there were three huge double-hungs from a Connecticut job. Architectural changes in design were made to them as the house developed so that the first ones wouldn’t do. I made an addition to incorporate those. Happily, it provided office space for Kathleen, who teaches art in the up-Island schools.”
And, window-maker that he is, when the Parrys tired of their original living room and decided to turn it into a kitchen, Will couldn’t keep himself from having the new living room addition all glass with a vaulted ceiling and a glass vestibule.

“But our house is still under two thousand square feet,” he says defensively about his additions.

Now that the children are adults (Cameron has graduated from Wesleyan University and Caitlin from Emory College), Will sometimes talks longingly of his New York days, but he has just built a second home in West Brattleboro, Vermont – with thirty acres of fields to mow and hay, which remind him of his Pennsylvania childhood. And his reputation as a window-maker still takes him frequently to other places, very simply and unobtrusively carrying his exclusive designer windows either in his own white van, a gray pickup, or a U-Haul truck.

Peter Rose sums it up: “Will’s modesty is one of his most endearing characteristics.”