The American Widow’s Walk: Explaining Victorian-era Architecture for Steampunk Writers – Part One

Located in Oak Bluffs (East coast), featured on an episode of This Old House, via Flickr. Wrap around porch and a widow's walk on the roof.

The Widow’s Walk is mainly found on Northern American Victorian-era architecture, though there are examples in other countries. It is called the Widow’s Walk because it is supposedly a place from where wives could keep an eye out for their husbands’ ships. However, since their are many examples of this architectural feature on inland houses without a glimpse of the sea, this is most likely a fabrication.

The Gothic flavour of this myth has all the earmarks of the Victorian obsession with sentimentality:  the patience of the faithful wife; the possibility of lost love; the implied promise of the husband’s return; the gloomy yet poetic name. It was also another excuse to add gingerbread and fretwork to ornament the house; which I suspect was the real reason behind the design and construction of the Widow’s Walk. The classic Widow’s Walk is an ornately fenced rooftop platform often with a enclosed cupola, painted in contrasting colours to the rest of the house, or to match the other decorative architrave features around the windows and doors.

For a Steampunk genre writer, a Widow’s Walk is full of possibilities as a setting. For starters, it is completely era appropriate. It has that sentimental, over-the-top Gothic myth associated with the feature. It is high up, and so can be used both as a lookout or a great place to threaten someone by trying to toss them off the roof. It is a great place to exchange vows or secrets without being overheard.

Indeed, you could even have a widow walk it…

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8 Comments

Filed under Architecture, Setting, Steampunk, Steampunk Genre, writing

8 responses to “The American Widow’s Walk: Explaining Victorian-era Architecture for Steampunk Writers – Part One

  1. This reminds me of a local architect Watson Fothergill http://www.watsonfothergill.co.uk
    and of course George Gilbert Scott of St Pancras hotel fame.
    http://www.architecture.com/Explore/Architects/GeorgeGilbertScott.aspx

  2. Reblogged this on Airship Flamel and commented:
    An Old House Idiosyncracy from the Cogpunk Steamscribe blog

  3. An architectural oddity to be sure. I grew up in New England where there are many old houses with widow’s walks. I don’t remember ever seeing anyone up on one, never mind a widow. They can also be found on pre-Victorian Federal style homes.

    • We have verandas and decks in Australia. They are generally well utilized as an outdoor entertaining area. A widow’s walk would be a unique feature over here. I’m tempted to add one if I ever build a house again.

  4. Reblogged this on chrispavesic and commented:
    There are a lot of houses in the Chicagoland area with this feature!

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