The History and Function of the Cupola as an Architectural Detail

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"The History and Function of the Cupola as an Architectural Detail"
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More than any architectural feature the cupola has become an icon for the legacy of the American dream. Unfortunately, Over 500 historic cupolas are lost each year due to fire, collapse, bulldozers and insensitive alterations that damage New England's architectural heritage. Although this is a fraction of the approximate 1,200 historical locations lost annually, it is still not a number to ignore.

The cupola is most commonly associated with one-room schoolhouses, barns and other farm buildings. And was, at one point, a standard staple of fine custom built homes common to the New England countryside. A leisurely drive through our richest historical states reveal cupolas on churches, barns, sugarhouses, granaries, tobacco barns, potato houses and foundries. The lucky traveler may even spot a cupola-bedecked outhouse!

The most common form of the New England cupola is a smaller vent style four-sided structure built onto the roof of a house, barn or other building. The hip roof is generally covered with tiles that match the roof the cupola is built on. Sometimes copper is used instead. This type of cupola is intended only for venting air into the building.

One of the drawing attractions of the cupola is that it is easily New England's most malleable and personable architectural additions. On blueprints, cupolas are seen as "in between" areas added on for the benefit of bringing in sunlight and fresh air. In bayside and shore side areas, where high moisture can be a problem, cupolas stimulate ventilation through encouraging a natural inward breath' of the building. This helps to combat molds and mildews as well as dry out basements and cellars after flooding.

A prime example of the necessity of having a cupola comes from librarian Ms. Enos of the Thomas More Collage of Merrimack, New Hampshire. In 2006 a spring storm tore the siding off and damaged the underlying wood supports of the library's high profile cupola. Long planned repairs of the campus's library floors were abandoned in favor of repairing the structure. As Ms. Enos noted, "Once you lose the cupola you loose the barn". 

Other regionally famous cupolas are: The Geoppler Cider & Vinegar Mill where Jeff Harrick of the Redding History Project reports Adolf Geoppler, owner, stored apples in the building's cupola. The mill worked double duty as a railroad stop and post office until 1940 when it closed up.

And let's not forget the Old State House of Boston, Massachusetts. This is the oldest surviving public building in the Boston area despite a 1921 fire in the attic, which damaged the cupola and the upper two floors. *

Further back, colonial forefathers saw the cupola as more than an austere necessity. They embraced the opportunity to showcase their wood crafting and carpentry skills. Many historic homes sport modified cupolas with romantic staircases winding upwards to an airy and attractive refuge away from the hustle of other living and working areas. Thus early on a key feature of the cupola became the added benefit of providing sanctuary, encouraging near misses and exciting encounters.

Historians point out that surviving at-risk cupolas are handsome structures showing custom made quality work using materials available at a particular period in time. Such as wrought iron nails, hand-planed floorboards, and the imperfections that can be found in individually made windowpanes. Like the buildings they rest on, New England cupolas take advantage of local timbers and timber traditions. Many of which reveal a simple minimal lifestyles geared toward practical everyday natures.

Destruction and alteration of these keystone features means removing evidence of previous owners' decisions regarding style, function, and proportion. Also lost is the owners' economic status during one of the most significant periods in our country's history. When this evidence is carelessly altered, the opportunity to investigate and understand it vanishes forever.

Regional historical societies, such as Historic New England and The National Trust For Historic Preservation offer workshops and trades events specializing in the craftwork and art of renovating and preserving at-risk farms and historical locations. These, and many other societies, work with craftsmen and professionals keen on preserving as much of our heritage as possible.


• The October 2006 Newsletter for Thomas More College can be viewed at:

• Jeff Harrick's Redding Connecticut History information available at:

• The Boston History Society may be contacted via:

• The Historic New England information is available at:

• The National Trust For Historic Preservation information is available at:

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