Here’s What That Weird Rooftop Balcony on Coastal Homes Is Called

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Vestal Street birthplace of Maria Mitchell (1819-1889), America's first woman astronomer
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When Mary Bergman leads walking tours through Nantucket, she gets a lot of questions about those rooftop balconies crowning the island’s coastal homes. You might know them as widow’s walks. Bergman, the executive director of the Nantucket Preservation Trust, gets the fascination. “It is evocative,” she says.

Often found on homes along the New England coast — although there are plenty located elsewhere (and even inland), from Maryland to Iowa — these raised, wooden platforms are perched atop sloping hip roofs. They’re framed by railings or balustrades, offering a viewpoint for admiring the nearby sea. And although the feature’s name suggests high drama, widow’s walks find their roots in practical purposes. 

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What is a widow’s walk?

Widow’s walks — or roofwalks, depending on the locale — surged in popularity during the late 19th century, closely following the dominance of classical Italianate architecture in the United States. Although similar in form to the squared cupolas incorporated into many an Italianate home of the era, widow’s walks often centered around chimneys as an outgrowth of existing fire prevention structures dubbed “scuttles.” In windy seaside areas, scuttles allowed people to scurry up narrow ladders to their roofs and douse smokey fires or flaming chimneys with buckets of sand. “You started to see that scuttle evolve into a platform with a decking around it,” Bergman says. “That becomes the walk.”

But lovelorn widows probably weren’t doing much pacing on that decking. Although the platforms did offer expansive views of the horizon, “ships were gone for four or five years at a time,” Bergman says. “And the women were here, taking care of the town. So I don’t know how much time there really was for staring out to see if [sailors] were going to come home.” Another detail that dispels the myth? Widow’s walks were often incorporated into the homes of wealthy ship owners and merchants, individuals more likely to spend time in accounting offices than at sea. 

The feature remained popular during whaling boom times, but economic depression, seaside storms, and changing tastes triggered a decline of widow’s walks in the early 20th century. “People were using them for firewood,” Bergman says. “And once they came down, they didn’t go back up.”

At least for a while. 

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Widow’s walks made a slight architectural comeback.

If you take a tour of New England’s coastal towns today, especially the likes of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, or Nantucket, you’ll definitely find some widow’s walks — but they’re not all original. In some cases, homeowners preserve existing walks or rebuild them on historic homes. In others, including homes located inland, architects integrate the structures into new builds when homeowners want to honor an area’s architectural vernacular. 

“We’ve been asked to apply [widow’s walks] to coastal homes that have an opportunity to capture long views,” says Michael Tartamella, managing principal at Patrick Ahearn Architects in Boston and Edgartown, Massachusetts. “These days, they’re used more as outdoor entertaining spaces.” 

Some of these modern walks boast mechanical skylights and full staircases, which, when compared to rickety ladders, are “a lot easier to navigate,” Tartamella says. Building a widow’s walk, however, “is not without commitment … from a cost standpoint,” he continues. So, when homeowners are looking to cut costs on a project, the walk tends to be “the easiest [cost] to trim off.”

Perhaps due to the cost, Tartamella doesn’t see a strong request for widow’s walks. Maybe that relative rarity helps existing walks capture the imagination and suggest “a time out of time,” Bergman says. “I think there is some place for romanticism in their history.”