Most of us are familiar with the iconic silhouette of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. So let’s move on to something a little closer to home here in New England – the Massachusetts State House in Boston. What do these two structures have in common? Cupolas!

A cupola is a small tower or dome-like feature projecting from the top of a roof. The first cupolas may have appeared as early as 2nd century A.D. in Syria, while others believe the first to have appeared on 8th century Islamic minarets. Some historians also attribute cupolas as the inspiration for the first ever dome in architectural history.

Sometimes added purely for decoration, cupolas can be round, square or octagonal in shape. They can also be incorporated into designs for ventilation purposes or to allow natural light to filter through, making them “lanterns.” Proper ventilation is particularly important, for example, in humid climates; hence, cupolas have historically been popular in coastal home designs. A cupola that allows you to access via a stairwell to gain a higher vantage point is traditionally known as a belvedere or “widow’s walk.

While they can range from large and ornate to small and simple, cupolas typically have three parts: the base, the vents and the cap. The base is determined by the slope or pitch of the roof. The vents can be windows or slats designed to let light, air or gas pass through. Screens can additionally be integrated to keep out insects and animals. The caps of cupolas are usually designed to have a square, octagonal, bell-like or other distinctive geometric shape. They are also often topped with a finial or weathervane.


Source: TMS Architects


Popular materials for cupolas include copper and wood (white pine, cedar, oak, cypress, etc.) as well as vinyl and other composite materials. Copper or shingle cupolas, for instance, can add tremendous aesthetic value to exteriors, both commercial and residential. Cupolas make for incredibly engaging exteriors with a nice balance of visual weight and a charming focal point.

Below are a few of our favorite examples of cupolas.

Contact TMS Architects to learn more about how we can help achieve a truly exquisite New England home or commercial space. We’ll make sure no detail is left out of your dream home design!