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What is the purpose of a Cupola?

Still on the theme of uncommon architectural features on homes and barns, I was driving past a house the other day with a cupola on top and matching cupola on the barn, and I started to wonder about the origin of the cupola.

So after some research, it turns out that cupolas are not just for show. They were invented with a practical purpose in mind. In fact it seems several purposes…

So the origin of the word “cupola,” is from Latin meaning little dome. And although most people believe that it is a decorative feature and nothing more, many would be surprised to realize that there are several reasons for the addition of the feature to both homes and barns.

The first one, which definitely surprised me, was as a way to differentiate different family farms in America in the post-Revolutionary time period. Kind of like a mailbox number to identify the right house. So, decorative, but with a purpose…

And there were even more uses…for example, cupolas actually functioned as a widow walk. It was a way for wives to keep watch for returning husbands, whether from sea or land coming back from war or working on the high seas. Many houses in Portsmouth, New Hampshire have a cupola on the roof, and that explanation may explain the addition of the cupola on those homes.

In fact, my wife and I like to stay at the Captain Lord Mansion in Kennebunkport, Maine, and the cupola located on that building is large enough to hold 4 or more people and really does provide a very nice vantage point looking out over the harbor.

But now let’s get down to the practical – the reason why a home inspector would be writing about a cupola.

It is of course, also a way to ventilate a structure – typically related to barn structures. Most barns do not have a ventilation system, relying mostly on the barn doors to create a crosswind effect to move air. But this does not remove the moisture and humidity that becomes trapped in the upper part of the barn structure.

In fact, warm, humid, and stagnant air can be very damaging to the structure of the barn.

So the addition of a cupola could certainly help to mitigate the issue.

Admire those cupolas!