Tag Archives: History

The Widow’s Walk

The Widow’s Walk

An iconic coastal adornment

The romantic widow’s walk is a classic adornment of many nineteenth-century coastal homes throughout New England. Historians note that widow’s walks became popular during the early 1800s when sea captains built large, private homes from the fortunes they amassed in the whaling and shipping industries. Inspired by the cupolas of Italianate architecture, the design addition soon became synonymous with New England coastal architecture and remains so today.

Home with a widow's walk
Caption: This Edgartown home has everything people love about New England architecture, including a classic widow’s walk flanked by large stone chimneys.

The widow’s walk (or “viewing platform,” as it was sometimes called) is a raised and fenced rectangular structure built on the roof of a house. These platforms became especially popular during the height of the whaling industry throughout New England ports such as Edgartown on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.

With its deep and protected harbor, Edgartown became the whaling capital of the island sending “countless sailors all over the world from its port.” These sailors were often at sea for months and years at a time. It is said the widow’s walk served as an elevated vantage point for seamen’s wives to survey the harbor for their husbands’ arrival. Sadly, many never returned, leaving their anxious wives widows.

A captain's house on the water with a widow's walk
“The faithful and dedicated wife, performing her daily circumambulations on the cold and lonely widow’s walk: The next sail to top the horizon may well carry her husband, gone to sea these many years…” – The Fisherman’s Voice (Image courtesy of Martha’s Vineyard Museum)

The widow’s walk conjures a nostalgic, poetic image where women paced, watched, and mourned their missing husbands at sea. However, some historians believe this idea may be rooted more in folklore than reality. They maintain that widow’s walks were designed with a practical and decidedly less romantic purpose in mind: firefighting. Chimney fires were a common and dangerous reality in the 1800s when homes were heated primarily by wood. Families would often store buckets of sand (and sometimes water) to pour down the chimney in case of fire – and the widow’s walk provided an access platform to the chimney openings.

The Kelley House in Edgartown
The widow’s walk on Edgartown’s iconic Kelley House was positioned adjacent to both its large chimneys. (Image courtesy of Martha’s Vineyard Museum)

There exists a third school of thought, which states there was a less practical reason these structures became so popular. The argument goes that wealthy sea captains believed the viewing platforms were an emotionally satisfying feature to have on their homes. They symbolized wealth and quietly said, “I can admire the source of my fortune (the sea) and survey my ships coming and going from the comfort of my home.”

View of South Water Street from the harbor side featuring captain's homes with widow's walks (including Captain Grafton Collins' House) around 1890.
View of South Water Street from the harbor side featuring captain’s homes with widow’s walks (including Captain Grafton Collins’ House) around 1890. (Image courtesy of Martha’s Vineyard Museum)

There likely wasn’t one single purpose for widow’s walks; it appears they served different functions and ornamentation depending on the homeowner. However, today, many of our homes continue to include this classic coastal detail, which honors the romance and history of New England’s vernacular architecture and instills a historically correct sense of nostalgia.

To Beadboard, or not to Beadboard

To Beadboard, or not to Beadboard

The beauty in its versatility

Few design elements are so versatile they feel both cottagey and elegant at once. Beadboard, a style of decorative wall paneling (wainscoting), is just that versatile. Beadboard originated in England four centuries ago with the practical purpose of keeping heat inside the house, and outside dampness at bay. It is said that early English settlers brought the design to the U.S. to remind them of the “history and architectural character” of the homes they left behind. Today, beadboard is still associated with coastal New England home design but is admired and emulated across the country.

Beadboard was originally made of evenly spaced, wooden tongue and groove planks that interlocked with ridges or “beads” between each one. In this style of wainscoting, the panels were lined up vertically on an interior wall and typically covered the lower 3 to 4 feet, the same height as most chair backs (hence nicknamed a “chair rail”). Over time, beadboard evolved into a decorative treatment used throughout the home. In the 1800s, kitchen cupboards often used beadboard as a backdrop for special china or keepsakes displayed inside.

Today, beadboard is available in varying profiles and panel widths and can be purchased in large, carefully milled sheets. Because humidity is hard on wood – causing boards to shift and paint to crack – we use medium-density fiberboard (MDF), which comes in ready-to paint sheets, generally 4 feet high by 8 feet wide. MDF takes paint very well, does not expand or contract, and is a rugged as oak.

Common beadboard profiles used today

We introduce beadboard as a design feature in many of our homes to add character and charm. However, the way in which we use it varies depending on both the overall height of the space and the tone and texture of each room. For example, if we want to reinforce a cottage, seaside vernacular, we may choose to create a room with beadboard on both the walls and the ceilings. Though the look is uninterrupted from floor to ceiling, we subtly define the space by using a 6” width plank on the ceilings and a 3” on the walls.

In a more formal living space – such as a master suite – we often include beadboard as a classic, warm accent, covering just half or three-quarters of the wall. We may also introduce it as a ceiling accent – alone or with cased or antique beams.

The traditional yet casual versatility of beadboard is rich: it can be used in lieu of plaster or sheetrock, installed at any height and be painted or stained any color. Although we typically use Ahearn White paint, there are times when a spar varnish adds just the depth and warmth the room calls for.

Beadboard is a classic wall design with rich history that will forever be associated with New England style homes. Both sophisticated and beachy, beadboard adds architectural character, grace, and charm to your home as a featured presence or a seaside accent.

Christmas in Edgartown Walking Tour

Join Patrick Ahearn and the New England Chapter of the ICAA during the 36th Annual Christmas in Edgartown for a historic walking tour, as Patrick discusses the history of Martha’s Vineyard architecture and how the town of Edgartown has evolved over the years. The tour begins at 2:00 p.m. and will conclude with a festive reception at the Carnegie Library.

 

Date: Saturday, December 9, 2017
Time: 2:00 to 5:00 pm
Location: Carnegie Library, 58 North Water Street, Edgartown, MA 02539
Tickets: $40 for ICAA-NE Members, $60 for Non-MembersPurchase tickets here.
 

About Christmas in Edgartown

December 7-10, 2017

Voted Best of the Vineyard for the third year in a row, Christmas in Edgartown is a weekend festival you don’t want to miss! Every year through the various events, Christmas In Edgartown helps raise over $50,000 for island-wide charities and non-profits. Come be apart of the holiday magic!

Find more information and events here.