Orphan: The Story of the Gazebo

The word gazebo is a curious one, as it seems a bit of an orphan, as do the structures themselves. According to what I have read, the word has no etymological history – no provable cognates in any European language. As Chamber’s 20th Century Dictionary notes, “etymology dubious”. While false etymologies have been put forward (for a discussion see here), and other etymological dictionaries mention several examples in that vein, the word is thought to most likely derive from some corrupted form of Chinese term. In fact the earliest citation of the word appearing in the English language is from 1752, in a book entitled Rural Architecture in the Chinese Taste:


William Halfpenny, the author, was an 18th century English architectural designer-  he also went by the name of Michael Hoare, and the co-author of the book, John Halfpenny, was purportedly his son though he may or may not have actually existed. Putting that aside, it should be noted that Halfpenny’s book predates Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director (1754), and thus is an important text in the history of furniture – certainly Chippendale was not the first person to introduce ‘Chinese taste’ into Britain, and in fact Halfpenny mentions in his book’s Preface that buildings in “the Chinese manner” had been “already introduced here with success.” By whom I wonder?

If the word ‘gazebo’ derives from Chinese, and Halfpenny shows and illustration of a tower as a ‘gazebo’, then what word in Chinese denotes a tower? One Chinese character for tower is ‘‘, a character which originally referred to an earthen tower, or stupa. The pronunciation of that character in Mandarin is ‘tā’. Not sure than helps much.

Another word for a Chinese structure of two or more stories is ‘‘, which is pronounced ‘lōu’. The character ‘‘ is literally a continuum‘ of wood‘. Again, the pronunciation of that character provides no connection to gazebo. The word for a two-story pavilion in Chinese is ‘‘ – a character pronounced as ‘‘. Now we’re getting somewhere perhaps, as this sounds quite close to the first phoneme ‘ga~‘ of gazebo. The Chenghuang Pavilion in Shanghai is a recently rebuilt example of an especially elaborate ‘‘:

Usually though the character ‘‘ is found as a suffix, not a prefix, so it would be a stretch at this point to speculate much further on how the character might tie to the word ‘gazebo’.

How William Halfpenny would have obtained any idea as to ‘Chinese rural architecture’ is anybody’s guess. He certainly didn’t visit China, so he must have seen sketches/paintings, possibly of Chinese origin, possibly done by a traveler to that part of the world. It would be a worthwhile research project to dig into this matter further, to try and see what sort of resources a British person in the 1700’s would have on Chinese architecture.

I note that in Jame’s Monckton’s 1873 work The National Carpenter and Joiner, a photocopy of which I have on my bookshelf, a picture is shown of a ‘floral bower’ which looks like it might be derived from ‘oriental’ (and I use that word most carefully) archetypes similar to what is shown in Halfpenny’s work. I came across a picture of a similar American pavilion, from the late 19th century:

It reminds me of a bird cage, and the roof is, well, clunky.

I’ve been doing designs for pavilions on and off for years. I like small open air structures, and pavilions are nice little modules in which to explore certain framing ideas. Polygons used for pavilions are typically octagons, and less commonly, hexagons and decagons. Other polygons are rarely used. I suppose the reason for this narrowness in types has to do with a couple of factors:

  • geometrically, octagons are relatively easy to work out, as 22.5˚-45˚-67.5˚ angles figure predominantly, and hexagons are 30˚- and 60˚-focused, also easy to work with as they are equilateral triangles and easily constructable with compass and straightedge.
  • polygons with an even number of sides mean that a given wall plate always has another wall plate directly opposite to in in the structure, and this tends to simplify framing decisions
  • once polygons get past about 12 sides they begin to appear closer to a circle thus negating the polygon form to an extent
  • more than about 10 sides starts to present a perhaps onerous amount of extra cutting  – the visual gain, if there is one, from 8 sides to 10 seems hardly worth the extra cut out work required to achieve it.

Still, I find 6- and 8-sided structures so commonplace and standardized that I have frankly grown a bit bored by them. So, I’ve tended to play around with designs involving 5- or 7-sides. The lack of directly opposed wall plates presents an added challenge in terms of the roof framing. I’ll share my solutions soon enough. First though, I’d like to spend the remainder of this post looking at Western approaches to framing gazebos.

Most polygonal structures I come across have a roof coming together at a point in the center. There are two solutions used most predominantly for solving this framing problem – either there is a central piece, a ‘King’/’Boss’ piece, formed into a polygonal section into which the rafters terminate, or the solution is to eliminate any central piece and have the first opposing rafter pair butt against one another and then the cross-wise pair butt against the sides of the first pair, and the other rafters are beveled so as to wedge into the remaining spaces. A variant on this method is to but the hip rafter together in the same manner, and then place a ring of blocks down a few feet from the apex of the roof and terminate the common rafters onto those blocks, as in this example from a website all about building decks

Here’s an example of a fairly cleanly done 10-sided building with a King piece extended downwards so as to receive rafter struts:

I found the above picture doing an image search – the structure is produced by a company in Utah, to which I have no affiliation.

Anyway, in either case, King piece or not, the arrangement of the rafters spreading radially from a central hub is akin to the old common-rafter roofs on rectangular buildings here, an arrangement which tends to engender uniform compression loads to be transmitted from the roof, down the rafters, to the wall plate. The rafters will want to sag as well, and the middle of each plate will be vulnerable to being pushed outward over time by the rafters which land there. Once solution I came across is to place a ring of tension rods around the perimeter, just beyond the wall plate, as shown in this illustration from a DIY deck builder site:

Again, no affiliation. I think the use of metal tension rods, while cheap, logical and plenty strong, isn’t the most attractive solution. Then again, most people wouldn’t notice, and isn’t that supposed to be the ultimate arbiter of whether or not we do something?

Not for me it isn’t, and nor is it for most readers here I suspect.

Applying plywood to a roof deck places a shear diaphragm in place which will help keep the roof from sagging and deforming the wall plates outward for several years. Another way though to resolve the loading problem is to construct the roof in a trussed form so that the outward push of the rafters is taken by a horizontal element in tension, like a King piece/King rod truss, or variant. Here’s one example, culled from a site I came across:

Not exactly fine timber carpentry, but it gives you the idea. One problem with employing a truss is that things can get rather crowded in the middle of the space, with horizontal ties pieces all meeting at the same point – to frame a structure like that in timber is awkward because the tie pieces can’t really be all that strong when sliced and diced to come together in the middle, and the joinery work is fiddly. And finally, with a bunch of timbers crowing the scene, it doesn’t always end up looking particularly elegant. I came across an example on a forum which illustrates this well,  I do believe, in another stick-framed example:

So, the gazebo isn’t the most straightforward thing to frame when you start considering it in detail.

And then think about this: what is a gazebo for? In classic Chinese gardens, along with Japanese ones, small structures in the garden exist for a variety of purposes, but a primary use for a pavilion is that is it meant to serve as a vantage point from which one looks outward. A pavilion in a garden is typically situated so that it offers a great view of some aspect of the garden, and often sits in a seclude place such that one comes upon it unexpectedly and when seated in it sees a view of the garden not available elsewhere. In the West though, preoccupied as we generally are with surfaces and appearances, we treat the gazebo not as something to be inside and looking out, but as an ornament in the garden to be looked at. There are a million companies selling gazebos out there, stick built, kit, timber framed, you name it. But the designs in the vast majority of cases are all about creating some object which you look out at from your house, or can see in relation to your house from the street vantage point. It’s a form of wealth display – look what I got, and oh, did you see my new speedboat and wishing well? These are designs concerned more about the surface appearance of the building than they are as spaces meant to be used and enjoyed.

I think that the design of these structures primarily as objects to be viewed in the West leads to their orphan state, as the blog’s title suggest – hardly anybody actually uses these things. They buy them, and abandon them. Why is that? On my travels about here and there, visiting many parts of the this continent over the past number of years,  I have seen gazebos in yards and parks of all shapes and sizes but rarely do I observe anyone actually inside of one. And why would you? The interior aesthetics, especially of the stick-built examples, are often outside the realm of consideration in the design process, it would appear, so they are not terribly pleasant or practical places to spend time – unless people like looking at stained 2×4’s that is. Maybe some do.

The gazebo, often plonked in the middle of a lawn, usually offers no view of anything besides the house, lawn, and street. Look again for a moment at the second-to-last picture above – how does the setting for the structure grab you? Nice view. What the structure does offer is an opportunity for roadside gawkers to look at you sitting in the gazebo, presumably enjoying the good life and consuming the right sort of products. They are entirely too self-conscious in that respect. They just sit there, from what I can tell, forlorn in the yard, discarded ornamentation from some dream of the Kingly lifestyle. The gazebo and the fake wishing well are in fact cousins in that regard.

Well, maybe some people use their gazebos, I don’t know. I certainly haven’t found one yet that is satisfying aesthetically or in constructional terms, though the promise is there. There’s untapped potential to be sure. And even if the inside of the roof structure is relatively uncluttered, as it is with the smaller and simpler structures, the interior of the roof peak tends to be a somewhat dark place. In humid places, the interior of the roof peak is a great place for air to sit and stagnate, and this tends to promote mold (fungal growth) over time. It would be ideal to have an opening in the middle of the roof to allow air and light in, and many gazebos in fact have raised lantern portions, however the framing doesn’t always make the most of the situation – often the framing blocks the light for the most part.

In the next post in this thread I’ll take a look at Chinese and Japanese framing approaches to these small garden structures, and then share with you a design I’ve been developing over the past while.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way, and comments always are appreciated.  ➪ on to post 2

3 Replies to “Orphan: The Story of the Gazebo”

  1. Hi Chris,

    A couple of your posts have kind of tied into what I've been watching and thinking about recently and I've been meaning to comment on it earlier… now seems a good fit.

    While I also tend to turn off most of the Brand er, I mean Grand Design episodes, I saw one that reminded me a little of one of your earlier posts about hexagonal structures. First there was that post, then your “Grand Designs” post, and now this one.


    This is an interesting episode of a basically one man build of a timber frame hexagonal self sustaining eco house with a raised lantern (say that ten times fast).


  2. Michael,

    thanks for that. While I would certainly build something quite different than shown in that Grand Designs video, and while I question some of the builder's decisions, I have to admire anyone who takes on a self-build and sees it through to completion. Kudos too for them trying to create a sustainable life with their home and garden.

    One thing that always throws me in British TV programs is the lingo – like the use of the term 'timber frame', which, in the UK, seems to refer to any building using wooden elements, regardless of what their dimensions are or how they are put together. The host once referred to a piece of plywood as 'timber'!? And he also slings the word 'craftsmanship' out for virtually anything that gets put together…

    Anyway, thanks for sharing.


  3. chris,

    hahaha… the host is out of control on that show. my father was british, and even so the use of the word “timber” to refer to anything used on a build that is even remotely similar to wood throws me.

    i agree. the most interesting aspect of that episode was not the individual design elements or choices, but the overall story and goal of the couple.


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