What Do You Call It??? . . . Cupolas, Belvederes, & Lanterns


So . . . what do you call those structures on top of some historic houses & buildings?  Well, the answer is both simple and complex at the same time.  The fact is, most people simply call all of them “cupolas” (pronounced CUE-puh-lah).  However, most of these structures are probably not cupolas.  Instead, many of them are belvederes, lanterns, or belfries.  Confused?  Following are some basic guidelines that distinguish cupolas from belvederes, lanterns, belfries, and even widows’ walks.  But rest assured that very few people would look at you funny if you called a belvedere a cupola!  In fact, it seems most people are doin’ it!

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Cupola – (right)- The Old House Dictionary by Steven J. Phillips defines cupola as “a small domed structure crowning a roof or tower.”  The word cupola apparently is rooted in the Latin cupula, which roughly translates to “small cup or cask”, again implying that the true shape of cupola is round.  The gigantic, round domes at the top of many public buildings, such as the U.S. Capitol building, are often called cupolas.

Yet an example of how people use “cupola” to describe any structure on top of a roof as a cupola can be found here, an outdoor decor website that defines cupola as any “ornamental structure located on the roof of a building.  Historically, a cupola was used to admit light and provide ventilation in dark, stuffy attics and barns. Now, cupolas serve a more decorative purpose.”  Kinda muddies the waters, huh?

belvedere2Belvedere – Phillips’ book defines a belvedere as being “for the sake of a view,” and notes that they can also be called “rooftop pavillions” or “rooftop gazebos”, and can even be full towers.  The most common belvederes on U.S. houses are square, with windows, and are very common in the Italianate style from 1850s-1870s.

lantern2Lantern – These are generally small, with windows or openings, with the primary purpose being to allow sun light into the structure below.  Usually, these are not big enough to walk up inside to look out — so imagine that they are simply historic “skylights,” so to speak.


Belfry – Where bells are hung, usually found on a church.  I am sure it is no accident that the root word here is “bel,” so it is easy to remember this one.

cupola5Yet, again, there is a bit of a problem.  What do you call the structure to the right, or the one below?  Most people would refer to this as a cupola, even though it is not rounded or domed.  But it definitely is not a belvedere (where you can enjoy a view); it is not a lantern (that lets in light); there is no bell (so it’s not a belfry), so . . . why not call it a “cupola”?!  After all, this company that manufactures them calls them cupolas!



  1. by cupolas, on 06.08.11 @ 7:20 PM


    Love the designs of these cupolas. My first cupola was a vinyl cupola which my dad built by hand back in the 60s. I have boughten a few since then but nothing like the original. On a side note I have never heard of a lantern or a belvedere. I thought they were all considered cupolas??

  2. by Michael, on 06.28.11 @ 10:32 PM


    You are correct that “belvederes” would still be considered a sub-type of “cupola.” So it’s actually both!

  3. by Roy Dutcher, on 01.19.13 @ 8:49 PM


    I designed and built my home in 1999. It was designed with both a belvedere and a cupola. You can walk out of the belvedere to the widow’s walk. The cupola (when I get to it) will sit on top of the belvedere. The the belvedere is 5 foot square almost all windows and glass door. It is accessed by spiral stares from the floor below. The widow’s walk is 16 ft square.

    The cupola will be 18 inches square with a weather vane on top of that. Still working on the cupola and wonder what kind of problems I may have with a copper weather vane and cupola roof. Will it become a lightning rod?

  4. by Michael@HHB, on 01.20.13 @ 10:34 AM


    Roy, I wish I knew! I hope someone with experience with this reads your comment and responds. It’s interesting that you commented about lightning rods, because just yesterday I was showing someone the original lightning rods and grounding wires that were all over some barns here in Delaware!

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