Turrets, Dormers & Cupolas


In his novel The Longest Journey, E. M. Forster makes a rare literary nod to architectural ornament. A naked boy climbs on the roof of a country house and shouts to those in the garden below: “Am I an acroterium?” The answer: “Yes, but they are unfashionable. Go in at once.”

An acroterium (from Greek words meaning “high” and “watcher, guardian”) is a sculpture placed at the top or angle of a roof gable. In classical architecture, the sculpture is often an urn, a bird, a palmette, or a standing human figure. The inspiration may have come from nature. Birds often perch on the peak of a roof, and birds were associated with spirits and divination. To place a divine guardian atop a temple made perfect sense.
The Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) drew statues on the roofs of his palaces and villas, which he modeled after classical temples. His influence on European architecture was enormous. In Rome especially, there is a rooftop population of saints and biblical characters. Likewise, domes, cupolas, dormers, spires, crests and towers of every kind decorate the skyline.
In English houses, as Forster notes, the fashion shifted. And in American houses, we seldom go beyond lightning rods and weathervanes to avert the wrath of heaven. But we do like roof ornament. Turrets, dormers and cupolas remain popular, along with chimneys, balustrades and the occasional crow’s nest or lookout.
These roof elements can have a practical function. Dormers admit natural light and air to an attic, the space under the sloping rafters, and allow that space to be used for bedrooms. In a house that lacks dormers, but has sufficient headroom and structural strength, they can be added. In 2006, Tom and Judy Boyd added dormers to their brick one-story house in Charlottesville. They gained a guest bedroom, bath and study on the second floor. Troy Yancey, of TEAL Construction was the builder. He matched the Colonial Revival style of the house so well that people assume the dormers are original. “The framing is straightforward,” he says, “as are the flashing and finishing. The hard part is matching the existing roof shingles.”
While simple dormers are common in traditional houses, and chimneys and cupolas hold a strong place in Colonial design—think of Williamsburg and Philadelphia—turrets belong to the Victorian era. Round, square or octagonal, with a pointed or mansard roof, the turret extends above the roofline to give a vertical accent to the house, with high windows that suggest an observation post or the lair of a lunatic—think of the Addams Family and Uncle Fester.
The Abrams Guide to American House Styles, by William Morgan (Abrams, 2004) has page after page of color photographs of Victorian houses, bristling with gables, turrets, balconies and bulbous spikes. As Morgan points out, Queen Victoria had a long reign, from 1837 to 1901, and her name is “a convenient umbrella for a range of substyles that convey the entrepreneurial and rough and tumble spirit of late nineteenth-century America.” After the Civil War, there was an explosion of new wealth, new methods of construction, and newly rich people who wished to express themselves.
Some of those people, and their architects, traveled to Europe. The castles of Spain, France and Germany inspired them. Arguably, the chateaux of the Loire valley in France inspired them most of all. The fanciful rooflines of Blois, Chambord, Chenonceaux and Loches, among others, gave rise to the fairy-tale castle that we associate with Cinderella, and that we see in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. The spiky silhouette, the round stone towers, the forest of chimneys, and the steep, shiny slate roofs all found their way into humbler materials—wood, brick, rolled steel and pressed tin—and the dimensions of a single-family house.
The frenzy reached a peak in the 1880s and 1890s, in a style that is loosely called Queen Anne. Incorporating a dash of Gothic, Romanesque, and Moorish, this was a period of excess in ornament, using deep colors, grotesque details, and complex geometrical shapes. Roofs sprouted gables and dormers in all directions, and a house was hardly complete without a tower of some kind. In Charlottesville, there is a cluster of turreted houses on Park Street in the blocks near Court Square, now used as attorney offices. Staunton boasts a collection east of downtown on Beverley, Coalter and Kalorama Streets.
The Belmont neighborhood of Charlottesville has both old and new versions. Belmont Avenue has modest examples from the early 1900s, nicely restored. Scattered in other streets are houses that grew upward more recently, adding a third story with generous windows for sunlight. The view from these modern, glassy belvederes, over roofs and gardens, must be delightful.