Traditionally, widow’s walks frequently adorned 19th century coastal houses in North America. Widow’s walks are railed rooftop platforms, often with a small cupola and built around the chimney of the residence, which can serve as a viewing platform. The tradition of creating a widow’s walk on a residence is attributed to maritime families, as lore suggests women would use these viewing platforms along the coast to watch for the return of their husband’s ship from sea. The name derives from the unfortunate seamen’s wives who patiently waited days to never see the ship return, becoming widows. However, many of the old colonial homes boasting this feature were actually many miles inland from the sea.
These beautiful architectural adornments are fairly typical of Italianate architecture that was popular in coastal communities during the 18th and 19th centuries. The small, enclosed cupola often incorporated into the widow’s walk design is derived from the classic Italianate cupola, the dome-like structure that was developed during Renaissance times. These cupolas were more often enclosed in the colder climates of the Northern Atlantic coast. Widow’s walks are also referred to as “Captain’s walks”, as they would adorn the residence of wealthy mariners along the coast, and would serve as a viewing platform to watch for ships coming in to port. Additionally, these walks served a practical purpose, serving as access to the chimneys for cleaning or repairs.
Incorporating a widow’s (or captain’s) walk into a luxury lake home evokes the tradition of the “age of sail”, drawing ties to the strong history of sailing on both the great lakes and inland lakes of Wisconsin. While widow’s walks were popularized first along the Atlantic coast, the 19th century brought many wealthy merchants and industrialists to the Midwest who replicated these classic architectural designs along the shores of the Great Lakes. Many Victorian homes adopted this ornamental feature, creating a multi-purpose space, as a sitting room or play area, or just a private area with spectacular views.
Whether renovating or building a luxury lake home with architectural features that may incorporate this iconic design, a widow’s walk and cupola, generally elliptical or circular in design, could become a unique, useable space rather than just a decorative addition. Even a more simple luxury lake cottage can be greatly enhanced with this feature, offering an additional private retreat from inside and a decorative feature from the exterior viewpoint, accessed by a hidden passage or an artfully placed spiral staircase. Skilled luxury custom home builders can enhance this lofty viewpoint with modern day interior conveniences, creating an extension of the dream home it is perched on.