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!
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?
Belvedere – 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.
Lantern – 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.
Yet, 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!