Cupolas have long been incorporated into the design of many buildings. In North America, these are often seen in many East Coast states, as well as the eastern part of Canada. The buildings themselves aren’t always homes, however. In some instances, cupolas have been seen on top of barns and other institutions, such as mental hospitals and children’s homes. Why were cupolas added to many buildings during the 19th century? Although the purpose of the structure varies, it had both a symbolic and practical purpose. Symbolically, a cupola on the roof appeared to elevate the structure and give it an appearance of success.
The appearance of success and image of rising up caused the cupola to be a fixture on many older school buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Schools weren’t the only location for a cupola, however. Many homes, regardless of architectural style, were built with one as a lookout point or a vent for circulation. But, starting in the 20th century, cupolas began to take an ornamental purpose. Many buildings, ranging from gas stations to town halls, had a cupola added to the roof, not always opening to the building below. Today, as historical preservation efforts aim to keep older architecturally-significant buildings, these various cupolas – from the practical to the ornamental – are being restored.
Why were these cupolas added in the first place and why are they so common along the East Coast and eastern Canada? Although cupolas are seen on various European buildings, they were added to many late 18th century and 19th century homes in coastal towns as lookout points. Particularly in cities with fishing and whaling industries, wives of fishermen or whalers would go to the cupola to see if their husbands were returning from sea. As a result of this, cupolas were dubbed a “widow’s walk,” if a wife never saw her husband return from sea.
But, cupolas are also found on many inland properties, too. These, however, were often added to homes as a vent. Either with windows or slit sides, such cupolas were added to the tops of homes or buildings, almost like early air conditioners, to increase circulation inside during warmer months.