Widow's Walk- Romantic Myth?

The romantic story of the widows walk has permeated American (particularly the East Coast) culture since the 1800s.

It is said that these architechtural features were built for the purpose of allowing wives a perfect view of the ocean; and hopefully, their husband’s return home from the sea. All too often though, that return never occurred- hence the name, “Widow’s Walk”. But is this just a myth, popularized by the romantic tendencies of our culture?

Widow’s walks are railed platforms atop the roofs of homes along the coast. Often times a small cupola is enclosed within the widow’s walk. In other communities these may be referred to as roofwalks or captains walks.

Looking back into Italianate architechture though, it seems widows walks may originate there. Many believe the widow’s walk to simply be a North American take on the Italianate cupola, also known as a “belvedere”. This would suggest that widows walks are not actually widows walks at all, but just another piece of architecture that we adopted from the Italians.

The first widows walks were not architechtural beauties by any means- they were simply a hatch opening to the roof, which provided no visual appeal. Over the years widows walks evolved to the ornate structures we are familiar with seeing on the coast today. In time they became more than just a practicality. Ladies would invite their friends over for tea, often on the widows walk, to enjoy a view unparalleled by what you might have found on the porch.

If you dig further, you will actually discover that this architectural feature provides an additional safety feature to the home- access to the chimney. A widows walk allows you access to the roof. In olden days, chimney fires were a common occurrence during the winter months. A precaution taken against this would be to keep a large leather bag filled with sand or water on hand. Snow and ice in the winter makes it nearly impossible (and extremely dangerous) to climb a two story ladder, much less with a heavy sand or water filled bag in tote.  If a fire in the chimney occurred, you simply took the bag up to the widows walk and poured it down the chimney to extinguish the fire.

It was not until the late 19th century, well after the birth of the stylized widows walk, that the rumors of the lonely wife began to take shape. However, there is no evidence to suggest that this nostalgic story holds any truth. Today, more than anything, widow’s walks help to sell real estate.

Going into the 20th century, the desire for seaside property increased. Since there’s only so much shoreline, many were forced to buy houses with views that were less than what they had hoped for. Widows walks provide ocean views even when you cant build or buy directly on the ocean. For this reason, widow’s walks have been and are still being featured on some very modern architecture.

Widow’s walks come in all styles and can vary in design but the standard is still the same- a flat, four sided platform surrounded by a wraparound railing. While their design and purpose has changed over time, they have carried a romantic story with them throughout the centuries. Even though the original story may not be factual, widows walks have garnered a lasting place in American legend and architecture.