In a recent social media post, Kelsie Gray declared, “I have finally achieved the enviable state of being where ‘getting ready to go out’ entails digging the who-knows-what out from under my fingernails and swapping out my gross bandaids for clean ones. Oh, and lip gloss. Because I'm a lady, dammit.”
On the surface, Kelsie seems like a study in contrasts. She holds a bachelor’s degree in music and a master’s degree in poetry. “Those are very useful degrees, by the way,” she laughs. When she moved to Paducah, she went to work as a college English instructor. It seemed like the perfect position to match her background and education. Flash forward a couple of years, and you’ll find Kelsie, battling blisters on a daily basis as uses her hands and plenty of elbow grease to bring historic window sashes back to life.
Her journey toward historic preservation in Paducah started with a part-time, side job, but the seeds had been sown from childhood. Kelsie hadn’t been in Paducah long before she did a little interior painting on the side, a role that went full-time with the renovation of Paducah’s Smedley Yeiser house. “I was mainly handling the stripping of all the woodwork,” she says. “They brought somebody in to restore the windows, something I always wanted to learn. I asked if I could watch to see how to do it. That’s how I got started. I did a few there and really liked it. I’ve always been attracted to old windows. Even as a little kid, which was a weird thing for a little kid to notice, I’d pay attention to original windows in an old house—the wavy glass, the hardware, and the character it added to the home.”
These thoughts, tucked away in her mind, have now come to fruition. And even though she works with her hands, the task of restoration is not a far cry from the academic world. “I’m using my hands, and I feel like I am doing something meaningful and tangible, but it also requires that I use my intellect. It is a very philosophical trade. There’s not just the how but the why.”
There’s also the fact that window restoration is not a common trade, and, since no two jobs are exactly the same, it requires analytical skills, problem-solving proficiency, and the willingness to be an avid student of others who are working toward the same goal. “The same thing that frustrates me is the same thing that makes me enjoy this,” says Kelsie. “Every sash is different, and every one presents a different challenge. None have been extremely straightforward. In trying to learn this trade, I did meet a guy in Hannibal, Missouri. His name is Bob Yapp, and he has a hands-on school for historic preservation. I have gone to a couple of his classes and then assisted him with a workshop.”
It was through Bob that Kelsie learned about a job at Mount Vernon, the historic home of George Washington. The pair went to Virginia in the summer of 2017 for over a month to restore the greenhouse windows. “I couldn’t turn it down,” says Kelsie. “It was 289 panes of glass. That was a lot of glazing!” It’s through such experiences and the ongoing work with historic homes in Paducah that Kelsie is building a knowledge base and experience.
Now, about a year into her restoration adventure, Kelsie is even more an active advocate for preservation. On social media, she regularly uses the hashtag #donttrashthatsash, and she can be seen plucking tossed-aside sashes from renovation trash piles, saving them for a new life down the road. “A lot of people don’t know preservation is an option,” she says. “And even some who do know think that it’s not as good an option as replacing them with vinyl windows. The claim is that replacement windows will save you money on your energy bill, but if you run the numbers, they wouldn’t pay for themselves for about 75 years. Most of them will fail within 15 to 20 years anyway, and you’ll be starting the cycle all over again. If you preserve an original window, you can have something that is perhaps over a hundred years old, and they can last another hundred years. These windows were made to be repaired and maintained over and over. And if you are the owner of an old home, I feel like you are not just an owner, you are a steward. Many came before you, and hopefully, many will come after you.”
As Kelsie works on a 110-year-old sash in her shop, it feels as if all her contrasting worlds meld into one, forming a melodious composition beneath her watchful gaze. Underneath a spotlight, her hands conduct, moving glazing putty between the glass and the frame. She rhythmically pushes the glaze into the space, each stroke a new line, each line becoming a part of a new stanza. Even the slightest of imperfections cannot escape her watchfulness. She corrects, she adjusts, until each part is in place. She sweeps, with long strokes, smoothing the glaze, adding the last touches to this overture. Once complete and in place in the customer’s home, this sash will be ready for many decades’ worth of sunrises and sunsets, glowing days and rainy days, and the ever-present changing of the seasons. These are the punctuation in the poetry of life, and Kelsie has made this home’s poem all the more beautiful.