Cupolas — a classic architectural feature for a mid century house

copyright 1950 National Plan Service, Inc.I’m crazy for cupolas. If you are looking to improve the curb appeal of your mid century house — colonial, cape cod or ranch — this is an architectural feature that you should consider. All images copyright 1950 National Plan Service, Inc., via the fabulous promotional binder once on hand at the Northern Indiana Lumber and Coal Company that I purchased from ebay. 

copyright 1950 National Plan Service, Inc.There was a cupola on our L-shaped 1951 colonial-ranch when we bought the house. We are friends with the longtime owners, who lived in the house from about 1953 to 1991, and they told us they added it during that time, when a little windfall came their way. Unfortunately, a different kind of windfall — a big squall that knocked an evil pine tree onto the back of our house — destroyed our cupola a few years after we moved in — SWAT! But, when we bumped the garage forward to turn our L- into a U-, we replaced the original cupola with one that was even a little bit bigger, to fit the new scale.

copyright 1950 National Plan Service, Inc.As you can see from these photos, which come from a circa-1950 housing catalog, cupolas generally (but not always) are centered over the garage. Like dovecotes on storybook ranch houses, cupolas over the garages of mid century houses are usually vestigial — they don’t serve their original, functional purpose anymore. Cupolas — which literally means “little cups” in Italian — were originally put onto large structures as lookouts or for venting. In the case of mid century houses, I hypothesize that they were carried over from use on barns and especially: carriage barns, where they were used for venting, weather vanes and maybe even lightning rods (?). If you think about it, the modern day garage is the modern day equivalent of the old time carriage barn, which was a larger structure that held the horses, the carriage, the hay, the tools — and would have benefitted from the humongous ridge venting that a cupola provided. In fact, as you can see from the photo above, garages in mid century homes still were not defacto attached — you still see the notion that the garage was almost like a small barn…connected by a breezeway, in this instance.

copyright 1950 National Plan Service, Inc.I think that cupolas can really add to curb appeal on a mid century modest house. Something more “modern” is likely going to want to be more minimalist. The modernist were all about stripping away unnecessary ornamentation. And to be sure, a cupola is unnecessary ornamentation at its finest.

copyright 1950 National Plan Service, Inc.

pine cupolaThere seem to be a lot of companies that sell cupolas. It looks to me like a number of them are selling the exact same product (a big manufacturer/distributor must be involved.) I bought our new cupola right out of the Brosco catalog available at our local lumber store (no cupolas shown online, though). I “matched” the one that had been destroyed. It was a simple, louvered model, like the one at the left. I found a similar model online at the Cape Cod Weathervane Company.

I tend to think: No need to get too fancy schmancy with your cupola, especially if you are going to angst about the decision. “Simple” appeal is fine… I don’t think you want it to be “the” most noticeable feature of your house or anything. You’re going for “balance.”That said, some of the cupolas shown in the images today have more pizzazz — including faux dovecotes! It can be done, you’re just going to have to “have the eye” to get it right.

Also, regarding size, that’s tricky, argh. I’ll have to think about how to write up a recommendation for that…

We roofed our cupola with the same asphalt roofing that went onto the garage. And yes, we also added a new weathervane. Again, I sought to “match” what had been destroyed: A man driving a carraige, in black wrought iron. I recall that hunt was more difficult. I believe I finally found it at a local Sheds ‘n Stuff. I’ll have to do a nother post on weathervanes…


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  1. Angela Kay Iezzi says

    We put one on our garage (not attached to the house) we were wondering if we could do one on our Cape Cod too?

    • pam kueber says

      Angela, I will have to look around more regarding this question. I tend to think “no”, that was not done. The cupola was for the garage…

  2. LA Larry says

    Here in SoCal, I live in a 1952 ranch housing development where each ranch house had been fitted not with a cupola, but with oversized bird houses on each roof; some over a garage, others (like mine) in the center of the roof at it’s peak. Today they serve the purpose of hiding roof mounted air-conditioning units which many residents have strategically placed behind them. Others have removed them altogether.

  3. Shane Walp says

    YAY! I thought I had seen cupolas on homes too? Crap. Well, I sent a quick rendering of my house with the addition of the cupola and the swoopy roofline I saw yesterday. The siding is the original cedar hiding under the vinyl siding I yanked off, and the colors are something Nikki picked out!

  4. Judi says

    Here in the Bluegrass, we see a lot of cupolas — functioning ones on the barns that house the thoroughbreds, to start with. Many of these barns are gosh-almighty beautiful and nicer than many homes. Because these barns are such landmarks, a lot of commercial and civic buildings are constructed to look like horse barns, complete with cupolas. These cupolas usually are just for looks. As Pam says, it’s important to get the proportions right — when they are too big or too small, they’d be better off gone.

  5. says

    Our garage has a flat roof so no room for a cupola, but that’s okay, Pam. I am mostly studying the landscaping, wondering what flowers those are and musing for the 300th time about putting a white picket fence in the yard. 😉

  6. Gavin Hastings says

    Dovecotes and cupolas have become an “after-market” item for the home unless it is custom. I would think the addition of each would take more time and create more hassle than any builder would be willing to invest.

    • Shane Walp says

      That’s how I became good at this stuff – so I didn’t have to deal with builders. I get tired of people asking, “Why do you want to do that?”, or sneering at the idea. People don’t generally like what we like.

  7. Shane Walp says

    I don’t know how taboo it is to put a cupola on the house itself, but I understand. People may begin saying “Do you live in a barn?”. But one of the above illustrations, while it still has the cupola on the garage, the house actually LOOKS like a barn with that gambrel roof! LOL

  8. says

    Actually, cupolas are suitable for any home or outbuilding, as they serve a necessary function of ventilating the attic spaces of your building. There is a formula that we use when building them so that the proportioning is correct for the size of the building they are mounted to. That being said, and improperly designed cupola can be a costly mistake as they can fail allowing the elements into your attic.

  9. Shann Anderson Elble says

    We removed the badly decayed cupola from our 1955 time capsule rambler/cape cod hybrid when we re-roofed, but we’re rebuilding it as the copper roof still looks fabulous! Does anyone know if there might be a source for replacement louvers for the cupola and just the directional portion of the weathervane?

    • pam kueber says

      For the louvers, I think I would first try the Brosco catalog. For the weathervane, hmmmmm, I think there are websites that specialize in this. Also — check ebay!

  10. Matt says

    What 1950s housing catalog did the illustrations from this post come from? The minimal traditional colonial looks very similar to my own – c. 1950. I have not seen too many minimal traditional colonials with the roofline sloping down to 1/2-3/4 the total height of the upper floor. Mine has three equally spaced low-setting square windows on the front upper floor. I had always assumed that the house was built from a plan book from the 1940s or even late ’30s.
    – Matt

    • pam kueber says

      These come from a large format vintage catalog that came from a lumber store. It is in my personal collection. I’ve never seen another one like it.

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