Friday, June 27, 2014

The Truth and Legend of the Widow's Walk

By Gretchen Sawatzki

Ever walk by a historic home and see a cast iron or wood railing on the roof?  It serves a purpose, but to what end? And, what is it? It's a widow's walk.

This Gothic Revival Style home features a
widow's walk on the top of the tower. 

The widow's walk originated during the American Colonial Period in the late 16th century.  As legend tells it, the widow's walk was erected atop the roof of coastal homes facing the open sea.  There, fishermen's wives would pace back and forth, and wait to see their husbands' ships come into port.  While this is a romantic notion, this probably isn't the only reason for the rooftop railing.

This cast iron widow's walk section was removed
from a late 19th century Victorian home.

In Colonial America, homes were heated with large central chimneys that also served as the main food preparation area, and since homes in the New World were generally made of wood, fire was a constant threat to the houses of this time.  A bucket of sand or water was typically placed near the hearth in case the chimney went ablaze.  At some point homeowners of the time began using small hatch-like doors to gain access to the roof in order to throw water down a chimney during a fire.  This small hatch quickly evolved to include a safety railing made of cast iron or wood.  As Americans accrued more wealth, their homes in turn enlarged, and so did their "widow's walks."  By the late Victorian period (circa 1890), Gothic Revival and Queen Anne style homes had transformed what was once considered a small service door into a full on decorative element.

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