Last edited 06 May 2021

Widow's walk

Gabled dormer and hipped dormer below the widow's walk - Gaithersburg, Maryland.


[edit] Introduction

A widow’s walk is a residential North American architectural feature. It is also referred to as a widow’s watch, a roofwalk, a captain’s watch or a captain’s walk.

These raised, railed platforms were first constructed on top of houses in the 1800s. They were often found on homes built on the seacoast, but they can also be found on inland homes.

Widow’s walks were a variation of the decorative Italianate cupola. However, original widow’s walks included an internal stairwell so they could be accessed quickly and easily.

[edit] The purpose of a widow’s walk

The staircase leading to the widow’s walk is the feature that distinguishes it as something functional rather than as a purely decorative cupola. Original widow’s walks were often built around the chimney of the building, serving as a method of managing chimney fires.

This widow's walk is on the Ezra Meeker Mansion, which was originally constructed between 1886 and 1890. Meeker was known as the 'Hop King of the World' and used his wealth to build this large home near the the Puyallup River estuary in Puyallup, Washington.

Large barrels would be placed on the widow’s walk and filled with sand or water that could be used to extinguish fires. Empty pails would be left nearby on the widow’s walk, so they could be grabbed quickly during an emergency.

At the time, homes were primarily heated by wood burning fires and food was cooked in large, open fireplaces. Buckets of sand and water would be placed near the fireplaces for emergencies, but having additional buckets at the top of the chimney was considered an extra safety measure.

In colonial American times, widow’s walks were very simple. Lacking decorative features, these widow’s walks were purely practical. Some were nothing more than a hatch.

[edit] The legend of the widow’s walk

As prosperity came to America, people began to build more elaborate houses, and the widow’s walk - still necessary - became more ornate.

Then in the 19th century folklore grew around this functional structure. According to tales spun about widow's walks, dutiful wives were said to patrol these platforms and used them as a lookout while awaiting the safe return of their seafaring spouses.

Another piece of folklore claims the platforms - also referred to as a captain’s walk - were used by successful seafarers and important maritime merchants. It is said these prosperous ship owners, businessmen and captains would use the watches to search the horizon for ships due in port.

[edit] Modern benefits of widow's walks

While people certainly did use the widow’s (or captain’s) walks as lookout perches, that did not become their primary function until modern times. In the 20th century, shorefront development increased and so did land prices.

For those who couldn’t afford expensive waterfront properties, the only way to get a view of the water was to invest in affordable property located away from the shore. Property owners could then build their homes high enough to see over the properties in front of them. This is how the modern widow’s walk became popular.

This contemporary house with a widow's walk is located in North Matthews Beach, Sand Point Way Uplands, Seattle, Washington.

Modern widow’s walks can be completely open, although some have removable or retractable canopies that shield users from bad weather. Widow's walks can be used for entertaining purposes or as spaces for stargazing. It is also possible to enclose them in such a way as to create additional living space protected against insects, noise, smells and other undesirable circumstances.

--Heidi Schwartz

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[edit] External resources

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