Born to a pioneering east coast family in the last decade of the 1800s, my mother grew up wandering the rooms and corridors of a large Inn and trading center built by her grandfather and known as “The Linnwood House”. The wreckage of the burned and razed landmark was still there, hidden by a generation of tree growth and a rampant blackberry jungle when I was a small boy, but I grew up in the very mental shadow of its image and place in local history and lore.
Like many neo-Victorian structures of its time, its three stories were capped with an imposing cupola which I learned from my mother had been her secret hiding place as a red-headed child seeking privacy in a largely-adult world. The tall “minaret” looking out over the whole town had clearly been a hallowed sanctuary of some meaning in her life, so often did she share with me stories from her youth in which it played a part.
Surrounded by grand buildings whose architecture was similarly festooned, I was very familiar with the term cupola, and its correct pronunciation (kyoo’pe-la). In time, I learned that the word came from the Italian, where it literally means “upside down cup”. The Junior/Senior high school I attended in New Jersey claimed a dome-like cupola, and the Dutch Reformed Church in our town had a cupola rather than the usual steeple, and on Boy Scout nights, I used to climb into that cupola/belfry in an attempt to capture resident gray squirrels while being careful not to ring the bell which hung there.
Our move to New England brought even more cupolas into my life, for it is here that the rooftop galleries are an ever-presence wherever one looks, and a matter of pride in every community, large or small. While most are simply ornamentation nowadays, they once served a number of practical purposes, especially in seaport communities where “widows’ walks” gave the family a perch from which to keep an eye-out for the return of their sea-faring men and other harbor comings and goings. Then too, early “Colonial” and “Federal” design multi-story dwellings often featured a circular stairway at their center, and before the days of electric lights, a glassed-in cupola overhead provided some much-needed illumination for otherwise-gloomy interiors. For architects and builders of the day, the unique design of such “cap stones” served as a distinctive trademark of their individual craftsmanship and a matter of personal pride.
For New England barns, the cupola was an absolute necessity, its venturi affect drawing air currents through lofts of summer hay, subject to a moldering dampness which was an invitation to spontaneous combustion-spawned barn fires. The typical maple-sugar house likewise requires an outlet for the billowing steam clouds produced by the huge evaporators housed inside, often with adjustable louvers which can be closed when not in use or controlled on windy, stormy days. I have spent many hours coaxing sled-loads of newly-gathered sap into carefully-marshaled gallons of finished syrup in a now-distant, but fondly remembered youth.
Over the years, whether as a tour guide or in solitary exploration, I have hunted down these roof-top wonders with camera in hand, and my photo files bulge with the recorded memories from among which I only have space to share these very few.
Overlooking a historic Atlantic seaport, this enclosed “widow’s walk” offers residents a weatherproof
view of nearby harbor activities.
My personal favorite cupola photo; a near-perfect combination of subject and composition.
Until the 1970s, every U.S. train carried a caboose, from whose cupola crew members could maintain
a visual watch over the entire train’s length.
A classic New England “bank barn” sports a typical and very important cupola feature.
All photos by Al Cooper