The Glassman Cometh
There are windows of opportunity and windows to the soul, and then there are windows that Philip Bregstone washes.
About this time every spring, as he has done since 1993, Bregstone packs his family into a white Subaru hatchback, leaves his chicken and goat farm in Colorado and travels across the country to wash the windows of the Washington elite.
Bregstone, 39, known about town as "Dr. Glass," after his window-cleaning business of the same name, is a squeegee to the stars.
His clients include New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing, former Rep. Jack Kemp, former boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard and Knight Kiplinger, editor-in-chief of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine.
Bregstone, a native of Potomac, spends every spring and part of the summer in his clients' glass houses, washing the dust, the chimney soot and the bugs from their French panes, Palladian tops, clerestories, single casements and double-hungs. He spends the rest of the year working on his farm near Boulder with his wife, Roberta, and their two sons, Jonah, 4, and Julian, 1.
What he sees can tell him a lot about houses.
Bregstone likes to say that his business grew up with the Washington housing market. He started out in the 1970's, he said, when windows tended to be smaller and there were fewer of them in the Colonial models favored by his customers. The windows he washes these days, he said, are larger and harder to reach.
Norman Dreyfuss, executive vice president of the Ballston-based IDI Group Cos., which is building three condominium complexes in Maryland and Virginia, said the trend in larger windows stems from the trend in higher ceilings.
When IDI raised the ceiling height of its units, it also enlarged the windows, adding two feet to the height in some cases and a foot to the width in others. It also added nine-foot-high floor-to-ceiling glass in the balcony enclosures.
These "window walls," Dreyfuss said, are part of a movement toward houses with more open spaces.
"It has become very popular to make houses more livable and do away with those formal spaces that don't get used much, and this is part of it, this more open feeling," he said.
Jim Bland, president of the Waldorf-based Amerispec Inspection Services, which looks over new and older houses for potential home buyers, said better-quality windows have made it possible to have more of them. Like Bregstone, Bland said he sees fewer traditional double-hung windows and more sliding doors and windows with three to four pieces of glass.
"Windows used to be small because windows were the one part of a home that allowed all the energy to escape," he said. "Today's windows are built so much better that you can have a lot of glass and still have low heating and electric bills."
Bregstone has definitely had to take notice.
"A monster house in the Seventies is a modest home today," he said. And because monster houses are the bulk of his business, Bregstone has moved on with the market and up with his clients who are buying them.
A monster house is a house of windows that stretch from floor to ceiling, a house with skylights, chandeliers, glass-front fireplaces and bathtubs surrounded by glass. Houses with large two-story windows or bay windows that look out into the woods and onto the rivers. Houses with people who do not have time to wash windows. Houses whose occupants can afford to pay to have them washed.
People buy houses these days for the marvelous windows. Make a mental note: People who buy houses with marvelous windows will have to pay marvelous prices to keep them clean or get on a ladder and spend a weekend doing it themselves.
Bregstone, whose business grossed $250,000 last year, charges by the window, as do most window washers in the area. Bregstone's window prices range from $4 to $20, which also is similar to what other companies charge. He said that cleaning the average house costs a homeowner $300 to $600. His least expensive job is $125, which is the minimum he charges. The most expensive is $2,000.
Bregstone, who has the haircut of a Bon Jovi rocker who grew up, got married and had children but couldn't part with the hair tail, was at the home of Knight and Ann Kiplinger earlier this week to wash windows. It's an annual spring job he has had since he and the Kiplingers were brought together several years ago by a leaflet that blew into their yard.
He was there at 8:30 a.m. on Monday with no time to waste. This is peak window-washing time in the Washington area. The weather is nicer, sure, and no doubt some folks have caught a good case of the spring-cleaning bug, but more important, said Nancy Pannell, office manager for the Silver Spring-based window-washing outfit Crystal Clear Reflections Inc., "there is more daylight so you notice the windows are dirty."
Crystal Clear is making appointments a week in advance. A voice message at another window-cleaning company in Virginia warned that the business is booked for a month. Bregstone is making appointments now for mid-June.
Back at the Kiplinger house, the rain was coming down in buckets, so Bregstone worked inside the house, where he maneuvered around the furniture and the piano to get at the Palladian windows, so named for the 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, whose style was based on the revival of Roman forms.
The Palladian tops, which are semicircular and divided into small sections by muntins--thin strips of wood--are the hardest of the windows Bregstone washes because they cannot be cleaned with one long swipe of the squeegee.
As he worked, Bregstone talked with Kiplinger about financial forecasts.
With his clients, Bregstone trades "parenting advice, cookie recipes and tales of woe about the challenges of two different households--for them, Potomac and the Cape; for us, Boulder and D.C.," he said.
Kiplinger called Bregstone a "New Age migrant worker."
"It's a wonderful way to amalgamate the wages of Washington with the lifestyle of Colorado," he said.
Bregstone has made windows his business since age 17, when he bought his first squeegee to earn money to pay for college. It was a job that fitted his musician's lifestyle. He could work during the day and play piano and guitar in Georgetown bars at night.
One of his first clients was then Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum. It was Metzenbaum who introduced Bregstone to what he called the Washington "celebrity circle."
In the years since, Bregstone has discovered that the window business seemed to be in his blood-make that his bucket. Make that his favorite double-sided bucket loaded with various sizes of squeegees on one side and a mild soapy solution on the other.
"What we do is very, very different from the painter or the gardener," he said. "We go into the bathroom. We go all over the house. We spend a day living with the families."
With 1,200 clients who expect to see their reflection by August, Bregstone has help with his Washington business. His team of workers includes a music teacher, a preacher, a political scientist and a U.S. Navy satellite imagery specialist.
"It was hard for me to imagine a business where I wasn't washing all the windows, but I've gotten over it," he said.
His workers-Bregstone calls them his "subcontractors" because they work for the clients and not for him-have taken the Hippocratic oath of the trade, Bregstone said, "to do no harm."
"It's the details that make the difference," Bregstone said. "We wear slippers in the house. We take a Polaroid of the trickier rooms to be sure we get everything back in place."
Even in Washington, or maybe especially in Washington, Bregstone cannot imagine the life that some of his clients have. He is content, Bregstone said, with being "an overachieving tradesman in a niche business."
What is the worst he can imagine?
"Having to get dressed up every morning and sitting in a conference room with no windows," he said.