March 26th 2015

burden of roof

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Vented dormers, cupolas, monitors, weathervanes – these ornamental follies populate the scape of the historic roof. But what could possibly be the original reasoning for adding these architectural frivolities on high? Was it an offering to the heavens? A constructed one-upmanship to the guy next door? Or was it simply an elevated doodad – a built cherry atop the sundae?
IMG_1378No, like most historic architectural elements, these devices have their roots in good old-fashioned practicality.

Heat rises, which tends to build up in attic spaces creating a hot, damp and mildewy environment. Back before houses were hermetically sealed and insulated within an inch of their life, monitors and dormer vents were used to allow the attic some breath. A constant movement of air kept garrets fresh.

The origins and history of the cupola can be traced back to 8th century Islamic architecture. The first cupolas, placed atop minarets, were large, often ornate structures, with balconies where the daily call to prayer was issued. At a later time and place, these cupolas evolved into the elaborate and magnificent domes of the Renaissance becoming a symbol of cultural elevation.

Weathervanes were not just another place in the country home to add yet one more decorative chicken. To the ancients, the winds had divine powers; the earliest recorded weather vane honored the Greek god Triton and adorned the Tower of the Winds in Athens, which was built by the astronomer Andronicus in 48 B.C. As a method of forecasting, weather vanes have long since been superseded by increasingly complex meteorological technology. Still, these simple, elegant tools remain proudly spinning in the wind atop country and city structures alike – a nod to the ingenuity and art of an earlier age.

I’ve illustrated how these structures were really just embellished solutions to necessity. I think, however, that they represent much more than that. Any building starts with a simple dream – solid foundation culminating in protective shelter. But it has always been man’s nature to look skyward, to reach higher, to climb the mountain and plant a flag. These roof adornments reflect that lofty quality: aspiration and longing realized in wood, metal and shingle.

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Faithfully,

Greg Tankersley for McAlpine Tankersley

1 comment

  1. Greg,
    What an interesting post. I think I assumed there must be practicality in the “toppings” to the sundae, but some were new to me. I have always loved a cupola on a home or garden structure. Maybe if I explain to Mr. B. that it is essential for the welfare of the structure, he’ll agree to having one built. 🙂
    Karen

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