In present times, cupolas are seen as a decorative fixture on many houses. Many wanting to go for a period or colonial look will add a vinyl or wood cupola to their roof, but the fixture will not be connected to the rest of the house. This was not always the case with cupolas, in fact. While the use of cupolas in architecture extends back several hundred years, they were added to many North American colonial coastal homes in the US and Canada. As older, historical buildings are preserved for their significance and architecture, cupolas are often part of the building's design. Over two hundred years, the function of the cupola changed from a practical component of a home to a piece of outdoor décor.
Homes built during the colonial period in fishing cities and towns like New Bedford, MA and New London, CT were often served with cupolas. Dubbed the “widow's walk,” these fixtures allowed family members to look out from the roofs of their home to see if their husbands or fathers were returning from a trip at sea. Built as part of the house, these cupolas were large enough – at least six feet tall – for a person to stand in. Although neither New Bedford nor New London is a significant fishing port in the present, older buildings in both towns still display these cupolas.
The cupola traveled inland, and homes in non-coastal towns started displaying them. These were still built into the structure of the home, but, instead of being used as a lookout point, they allowed air to circulate through the house. Most of these cupolas were slightly smaller than their coastal counterparts, but they were still attached to the home. With vents on the sides, the cupola acted like an early air conditioner to many homes.
In the 20th century, however, cupolas began to be ornamental only. While buildings still used them, they were generally added to make a building appear taller and stately. The size, additionally, shrunk over the century and the fixture seldom opened to the rest of the house when added.