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.
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.
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.
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.
There 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–link now gone.
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…