Turrets and Towers of Greenfield

I don’t know why it is, but for the longest time I have been a fool for turrets and towers. I’m not interested in them so much on castles, but on houses, I find them delightful, depending upon design of course.

What’s the difference between a turret and a tower, you may ask? They are similar, however a turret is part of a bump-out, or projection from the building wall. Turrets typically do not continue all the way to the ground, whereas towers do. A turret is not necessarily taller than the rest of the building and often is part of a room, or rooms, and may be walked into. Some have staircases inside, as of course do some towers.

The heyday of houses built with turrets and towers undoubtedly was the ‘Queen Anne style’, as it is called in the US. This is not so much a formulaic style as it is a term used to loosely describe picturesque buildings with many of these characteristic features:

  • asymmetrical facade
  • dominant front gable
  • a porch which covers part or all of the front facade
  • porch includes the front entry area
  • towers which are round, polygonal, or square
  • differing wall textures, decorative shingling
  • decorative brackets supporting overhangs
  • gables decorated with patterned shingles
  • oriel windows
  • leaded glass windows
  • rich interior woodwork

I first saw these buildings in detail and number in the San Francisco bay area, where some of these structures are called ‘painted ladies’. The Queen Anne style flourished from about 1880 until 1900. It’s origins are credited to an English architect, Richard Norman Shaw:

Now, Queen Anne style never had much to do with the historical Queen Anne who ruled from 1702~14, nor did it have much to do with the Renaissance architecture popular in England during those years. The sources for this style were a combination of 17th and 18th century English and Flemish domestic architecture, though the style incorporated eclectic motifs drawn from many sources. In the US, this style varied somewhat from that in Britain, featuring an extensive use of wood rather than brick or stone, and a less formalized interior arrangement of rooms.

The style developed by Shaw first saw exposure in the US at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, as the British exhibit had several buildings constructed in that manner. Later, Shaw published a book of sketches and provided material for the first magazine of architecture, The American Architect and Building News, which was widely read, and then a spate of pattern books published in the last decade of the 19th century served to further popularize the style. Here’s a link to (–>) volume III (<–) of that journal, and the link will take you directly to an article I found quite entertaining on page 82~3, titled “The Conscience of a Contractor”. It seems like the more things change the more they remain the same in that regard. There’s quite a lot of interesting stuff in there, a window into the building world of 1873 at least.

The Queen Anne style is a Victorian style, and like other aspects of the Arts and Crafts movement, was a reaction against the onslaught of the machine as the industrial revolution gathered full steam. The Queen Anne style was a flow-on of sorts from the Gothic revival style popularized by Ruskin and others. In the US it supplanted the Second Empire Style, which had taken center stage for the 1860~1880 period. Faddism in American architecture was becoming well established by this point, as the Master Builder tradition, where construction was governed by proven precedent and pattern, was fading into the background. You’ll find more posts on this topic if you care to read them – look under the term “Master Builder Tradition in the labels index to the right of the page.

I live in Greenfield Massachusetts, located in the Northwest corner of the state. Greenfield is situated along the Connecticut river, and is about 15 minute’s south of the Vermont border. Across the river to the east is Turners Falls and Millers Fall. Millers Falls should be a familiar name to carpenters out there, as the Millers Falls Tool Company (<– link) made woodworking equipment, like drilling machines, miter boxes, hand planes, breast drills, etc., from about 1870 until it was bought out and moved elsewhere in 1982.

I mentioned above the architectural pattern books which proliferated in the late 19th century – Asher Benjamin (<– link) was an author of one one such widely read pattern book, and one of his earliest houses, the Leavitt-Hovey House, is now in fact the Greenfield Public Library. Here’s an artist’s rendering of the house as it looked after construction was complete:

While those stately trees are long gone, some fine pictures of the house can be found here (<– link)

I live in a middle class neighborhood just at the edge of an area of older upscale homes. The library is 5 minute’s walk away. Many of the homes in the part of town were of the Queen Anne style, and it would appear nearly all of them were constructed in or around 1895. I recently brought my camera along and snapped pictures of various details – especially turrets – and thought I’d share them with y’all here on the Carpentry Way.

At the first Queen Anne house I came to, I spotted the owner in the yard doing some maintenance. I said “hello”, explained what I was interested in doing, and asked him if he would mind if I took a photograph of his house and it’s tower. His reply: “No, not today, thanks”

So, onward…the first one on today’s tour is undoubtedly one of my favorites in this area:

What I like about this house is the large volumetric mass of the tower, fitted about halfway into the rest of the structure and serving to partially enclose a semi-circular porch. After meeting the owner, Russ, and explaining my interest in taking photos, he allowed my free run to take whatever pictures of the house I wanted. Here’s a view from another corner of the yard:

Slightly obscured in this photo by the tree is a small eyebrow dormer in the roof. Love those!

Then Russ’s wife came out and said “hello”. When she found out what I we were up to, she asked if we (my wife was along for the ride) would like to see inside the house. Well, “You betcha!” As we went around to the back, I snapped another picture, taking in the enclosed solarium and oriel window to the side:

I really like the detail where the second floor wall terminates in a slight flare, or skirt at the bottom. That treatment both looks nice and serves to break up the flow of rainwater down the wall surface. Note too that the second floor is slightly jettied on this side of the house.

Inside, we have a bedroom where that eyebrow dormer was situated:

Then we went up another floor and I got to see inside the tower roof itself:

The conical turret employs a king post, and the sheathing is composed of 1 x 4′ s placed on a slight bias. Fitting horizontal boards to a conical roof is one of those tricky geometrical problems of a curved nature, and requires wide blanks of wood and a lot of waste, so the solution employed here makes good sense.

Here’s a look at the rafters of the turret meeting the main slope of the roof:

A very enjoyable experience, and I thank the kindly owners for the opportunity.

A little further down the street I came across another gem, this one with an octagonal tower:

The opening in the middle of the second floor facade, with its elliptical frame, is quite neat.

Here’s a close-up of the tower’s ogee, or campaniform, roof, with it’s copper finial:

Another view, showing the shingling which wraps in and around the window openings:

As with many houses in this style, there is a dominant gable on the facade, with well-detailed shingling:

Looks like the slate work around that valley though is needing some attention. The carved brackets under the jetty are particularly nice.

A few yards down the road, I came upon this house:

Many of the houses, like the one above, in this area have an octagonal bay window or tower base surmounted with a squared wall section, leaving the delightful corner overhangs. I also like the enclosed veranda with polygonal bump-out.

Another view – note that the roof of the tower does not come to a point, but has a short ridge with a unique finial:

Next door is this house also with an octagonal tower

This house does not have the dominant gabled end on the front facade, but has an intriguing octagonal dormer to one side of the tower.

Another house in this area also features an octagonal dormer and tower:

Another view:

Light was fading and the sun setting but I managed to snap this picture:

I really like how the circular tower sits atop a square base, and the lovely roof which transitions between the two shapes. The mix of gable detailing on the facade is interesting and the veranda balustrade is quite unusual in form. I think the cylindrical towers look better when they are larger, as the windows, with their flat faces, do not interrupt the visual flow of the eye along the cylinder quite so much. There are curved front double sash windows mind you, just not on the one pictured above.

And one last one for today:

Again we see the cool flared skirt along the second story wall where it meets the lower story. Note the mix of materials on the walls – stone on the first floor of the tower, shingles elsewhere.

A close-up:

A simple shed dormer this time, and the tower roof is slightly flared at the bottom. Nice!

There are other buildings in Greenfield with similarly beautiful architectural detailing, but I feel I have shared at least a decent representational group of photos today. I hope you enjoyed the tour.

I think when I build my own house, there will definitely be towers and turrets involved. They are so delightful to me, and I’m sure that I am not alone in that appreciation.

15 Replies to “Turrets and Towers of Greenfield”

  1. Hi Chris,

    Not to steal your thunder (and you can keep this to yourself, of course), but here is a couple of links to the house my Mother grew up in in Burlington, ON:

    Here is a quote from a .pdf I have (but can't locate the link on the web anymore):

    “The “Gingerbread House” was built in 1893 by A. B. Coleman, a well-known builder who built the Brant Hotel and a number of fine frame structures in Burlington, as his own house. The two-and-a-half-storey frame structure is an exceptional example of Queen Anne Revival Style, with an exuberant display of decorative details. The many types of wood cladding include shiplap siding, clapboard, board and batten and fish-scale shingles. Of particular note are the great variety of windows, including a stained-glass window set into the large front chimney. Form 1899 the house was owned by Dr Metherell, whose two-storey frame Coach House is still standing. It was sold to William B. Ford in 1918. The present owners acquired it from William Ford. The Victorian gardens include a fine cast fountain and a specimen Magnolia tree. The property is Burlington's best-known heritage landmark.”

    W.B. Ford was my Mother's grandfather. For many years it was a Sunday ritual for us to visit 'Granpa' Ford (we lived in Guelph – not too far away), so I have many memories of the house (including being too scared to go up to the attic!).


  2. Hi Chris,
    In Brooklyn, not far from where I live, there is a section of houses that surely must date from that era. The community has since fallen on hard times and the architectural details you cherish serve only as obstacles for the vinyl siding and asphalt roofing installers from Home Depot. Very little of the exterior woodwork remains. Many of the porches have been converted to interior space by walling them up with cheap windows. Life goes on…

    Harlan Barnhart

  3. Fanciful, but some of those towers appear incongruous to the overall design of the structure, like they were additions. Looking at them pulls your eyes apart. I wonder what design element could be used to soften the transition from the rectilinear part of the structure to the rounded or faceted? It seems to work better when there is sufficient thought given to the overall balance of the building, and the tower placement, as in good architecture. The towers have a very strong visual impact.

  4. Hello Chris,
    I just wanted to thank you for producing this blog, which I've been enjoying for over a year now. And on no reasonable grounds: I have no background in carpentry or architecture (except what choice glints of understandings I've picked here). And yet, it seems like the truism among college students – to pick courses based on the professor, not the subject; the care and interest that goes into your posts makes me interested and makes me care very much.

    Hallelujah for the Internet – when it works, it really works! – and best wishes to you.


    PS – As I'm living in Florida, amidst a sea of boxes and big boxes, this post was a gourmet meal for a starving soul.

  5. Harlan,

    it's funny the little pockets where these sorts of buildings, or ones of similarly esoteric styles, can be still found. I was surprised to come across so many in the area where I live, as they aren't especially common in town around here.


    yes, some of the towers are less harmoniously integrated with the overall buildings of which the form a part, however I am fairly certain that the towers are original to the buildings. There are some Japanese 'setchū-wayō' (East meets West) buildings in Japan with turrets and towers, and one resort comes to mind which combines rectilinear and circular forms quite deliberately. There are ways to mesh the two patterns together with greater delicacy I'm sure, however there is also a certain whimsy to the Queen Anne style which I value and appreciate, and if nothing else, this architecture serves as an appreciated respite from the otherwise monotonous white-clapboarded vernacular architecture of Colonials and Saltboxes in these parts. Sometimes clumsy and unbalanced things have a certain charm, like an ungainly foal trying to get to its feet.


    your comment was one of the most rewarding I have come across in a long while. Thank you! I'm glad that this blog is of interest to those,like yourself, who are not specialists in Carpentry, architecture or woodworking. I hope to keep dishing up interesting courses and keep the menu varied in the months and years to come.


  6. Chris

    Thanks for the tour. We have a few scattered Queen Anne houses in greater Cleveland. The porches always seem like a dandy place to read a book on a hot July day with your feet up and a big glass of ice tea.

    The 'flared skirt' around here is called a 'bell curve'.


  7. Chris

    PS. Thanks for the tip on sheathing a conical roof. That may prove invaluable someday!


  8. Arent they so interesting to look at, and figure out! Be a dream to own one. My fav is the 3 story octagonal tower. I have started to notice roof ventillators where ever I go, some cracker designs about. Thanks for sharing your stroll Chris.

  9. Gordon,

    thanks for your comment. It sounds like you find these whimsical pieces of architecture of appeal as well.

    Roof ventilators – are you referring to cupolas? If you see some nice designs on your travels, I'd be interested to see any pictures you might take.


  10. Hi, I am a writer and I came across your blog in the course of my research. I am writing a ghost story set in a Queen Anne style home. I want my house to have a tower, but I was wondering: what makes up the different floors of the tower? The picture you have of the tower roof, was that a bedroom or storage space like an attic? Do you have any pictures of the rooms withing the tower? And finally, how is the uppermost part of the tower accessed? (stairs, attic ladder, etc) Thanks so much! Tiffany

  11. Tiffany,

    thanks for your comment and all the best in your writing endeavor(s).

    The different floors of the towers are invariably extensions of the main floors of the house which are contiguous with the tower. In some cases, the floor section of the tower is connected to the rest of the floor on that level in an open manner, and in other cases it may be a partitioned room with a door. Usually the towers are a bit cramped inside, so I suspect that in most cases they are openly accessible from the rest of the floor on that level.

    The uppermost part of the tower is generally part and parcel of the roof structure and as such is typically recessed into the main roof plane. In some cases, as shown in the post above, the space immediately under the tower's roof is open framing like the rest of the roof and is normally not exposed to view. Further, in the case of the one shown in the post above, the space under the tower roof is simply accessed from a small door in an adjacent bedroom and is used for storage.

    Other towers may have the underside of their roofs fully paneled or plastered and are exposed, 'cathedral' style to view. Personally, that's what I would do if building a house with a tower.

    If the tower's roof is completely detached from the main body of the house roof, and is quite a bit taller (not a common arrangement) then it would be possible to have an additional room in the tower over and above the rooms in the house. in that case, a ladder or stair would be required to access it.

    Hope that clarifies the picture somewhat.



  12. Have you written your book Tiffany? I live in a Queen Anne Victorian 2 story home, built in 1899 in Corona Ca. And my bedroom includes the 2nd story turret with 4 curved windows, the 1st all accessible from open floor, the 1st story is the same as my room but has 3 windows and a door that leads to the wrap around porch. The attic above me completes the tower top and could be made into a room (needs walls and ceiling however) has hard wood floor too. even has the small covered, would or been or was windows that could be made into a observation sitting area that is high in the sky as we have a basement that makes the tower top even higher up. It would/will eventually be accessible if they can decide where and what style of stairs to add, because you can only enter though the bathroom ceiling which is 9 1/2 feet tall, and the opening is only sized for a small person on a tall ladder. I have lots of pictures of inside and out, if you are interested.

  13. Tracy,

    thanks for your comment. not sure if Tiffany subscribed to the comment section, so she may not see your comment. I'd be interested in your photos in any case.


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