Posted by: Jack Henry | September 2, 2021

Editor’s Corner: Widow’s Walk

A few weeks ago, I answered a question about the term widows peak. A serendipitous occurrence has since brought another widow term to discuss. One of our readers just happened to mention that he found the term widows walk, just days after my mom and I were admiring a widows walk on a Victorian home in Old Town San Diego, at Heritage Park.

What is a widows walk? A widows walk (also called a widows watch or a roofwalk, is an architectural feature. Heres more on the name, the feature, and then a picture of the beauty we saw at the park. From Wikipedia, a widows walk is a

railed rooftop platform often having an inner cupola/turret frequently found on 19th-century North American coastal houses. The name is said to come from the wives of mariners, who would watch for their spouses’ return, often in vain as the ocean took their lives, leaving the women widows. In other coastal communities, the platforms were called captain’s walks, as they topped the homes of the more successful captains; supposedly, ship owners and captains would use them to search the horizon for ships due in port.

However, there is little or no evidence that widow’s walks were intended or regularly used to observe shipping. Widow’s walks are in fact a standard decorative feature of Italianate architecture, which was very popular during the height of the Age of Sail in many North American coastal communities. The widow’s walk is a variation of the Italianate cupola. The Italianate cupola, its larger instance being an archetypal belvedere, was an important ornate finish to this style, although it was often high maintenance and prone to leaks.

Beyond their use as viewing platforms, they are frequently built around the chimney of the residence, thus creating access to the structure. This allows the residents of the home to pour sand down burning chimneys in the event of a chimney fire in the hope of preventing the house from burning down.

Side note: cupolas and belvederes look similar to me when Goolging images, but WikiDiff says a cupola is a dome-shaped ornamental structure located on top of a larger roof or dome, while belvedere is a turret or other raised structure offering a pleasant view of the surrounding area. There are several photos of cupolas that are not dome-like, so I might call them something else. The etymology from Wikipedia indicates that the word cupola is Borrowed from Italian cupola, from Latin cpula (little tub); from Latin cpa, cuppa (cup); named for its resemblance to a cup turned over.

Here are some photos from around the world with examples of each:

Widows Walk: Sherman-Gilbert House (1887) San Diego, CA

Belvedere: Pashkov House, Moscow Russia

Cupola: Cardiff City Hall, Wales, UK

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her/hers

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