Tag Archives: Widow’s Walks

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.