I was very young the first time I saw a widow’s walk on top of an old house somewhere in Boston where I grew up. I remember staring at the banisters for a long time, wondering why anyone would ever want stairs on a roof.
I was told this perch was a widow’s walk created for women waiting for their men to return from the sea. I was enchanted. I imagined a beautiful woman with long full skirts, a lace bodice, the wind blowing through her hair, pacing back and forth, anxious for her lover to return home. Such a romantic notion! Of course, the sad truth was that many did not return, so perhaps the name was apt.
The dictionary tells us a widow’s walk is a railed, rooftop platform typically built on a coastal house, and originally designed to observe vessels at sea. Wikipedia says a widow’s walk was also known as a “widow’s watch, or captain’s walk and the name is said to come from the wives of mariners, who would watch for their spouses’ return, often in vain as the ocean took the lives of their men.”
I’ve always believed widow’s walks were a particularly New England device, but I’ve found them in many places, open and enclosed. Here’s one in San Francisco. Perhaps a slice of the sea is still visible from its location.
Here’s another in St. Helena, California – wine country, not a wave in sight, well, not unless you travel a good number of miles due west. Was it simply an architectural trifle carried from the east coast, or built to watch the laborers working in the vineyards?
Wikipedia goes on to explain that widow’s walks were a standard feature of Italianate architecture, very popular in North American coastal communities, a variation of the Italianate cupola also known as a belvedere, a high maintenance device prone to leaks. Since they were frequently built around a chimney, their real use was to allow access to pour sand down a burning flue in case of fire.