What's a Cupola?

DEFINITION: In architecture, a cupola is a polygonal or circular structure built on top of a roof.

ORIGINS: The English word cupola has its origins in the 16th Century Italian word cūpula meaning, “a small cask’. Cūpula is derived from the Latin word cūpa meaning ‘tub’. The general idea is that of an upside down tub-shaped structure built on a rooftop.


Cupolas and cupola-like structures have been discovered on buildings dating back to Mesopotamia and ancient Persia. An amazing variety of structures have been employed throughout history for both functional and ornamental purposes.

 From traditional rooftop structures in the Far East to Near Eastern byzantine architecture, from the arched domes of Russia to the Taj Mahal in India, cupolas can be found in many cultures around world.

In Europe, cupolas became popular as the Roman Occulus (hole in the roof) was adapted to more northern climates and capped with a structure to keep out the elements. And, as these Renaissance-influenced European colonists migrated to the New World. Cupolas found their way to the Americas.

Early American settlers found many practical uses for cupolas. They were employed as bell towers, observation posts, and strategic defensive positions in missions, forts.

Cupolas were used in meeting halls and places of worship to provide natural light and ventilation for otherwise dark and stuffy spaces. Along the Atlantic seaboard, cupolas served as belvederes (lookouts) and “widow’s walks” for sailor’s wives to keep an eye on the horizon for returning ships. At night, with a lantern, they served as a beacon of hope and a lighthouse to guide love ones home.


It should not be lost on us that the cupola bell towers of New England played a critical instant-messaging role in the early days of American Revolution. Were it not for them, Americans might live in a very different world today!


Ever inventive, the farmers in the Northeast found another important application for cupolas. The weather-tight barns necessary to keep livestock alive and healthy during cold winter months suffered significant humidity-related problems when kept closed up for too long. Opening the doors simply allowed too much heat loss. A cupola or multiple cupolas added to the barn roof allowed farmers to control ventilation and provide much needed light within. Today, barns with rooftop cupolas can be found throughout rural America.

 Cupolas, from the earliest days of the Republic, also served as important architectural accents and served as symbols of culture and progress. As the young nation developed, cupolas became a part of classic American design and were used to crown the roofs of historically significant buildings from every time period.


In the late 1770s, George Washington designed the now-famous octagonal Cupola Tower on his Mount Vernon mansion to enhance the roofline of one of Americas most iconic dwellings. The cupola is built directly above the central stairwell so that, when the windows are opened, the drafting effect of helps cool the entire mansion.


Fast-forward to today, and the American cupola has been adapted to an amazing range of structures, designs and styles. Cupolas are found on government buildings, metal bulidings, office buildings, residences, garages, barns, stables, boathouses, gazebos and shops! There are formal and informal, classical and modern cupolas.

At The Lake Burton Trading Post, we have carefully selected our cupola product line because we believe, across the board, our cupolas capture the essence and timelessness of American cupola style in every category. From large and formal to modest and laid-back, we have cupolas for almost any structure and style. Each one is expertly and carefully hand crafted with pride by America craftsmen in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country and comes with a 120 mph wind rating.  We believe you will enjoy exploring our collection of cupolas and hope you will find one that suits your needs.