We in farming country know that cupolas on barns are for cooling. Hay can get hot, hot enough to make a fire. But we know the physics: Hot air rises. A cupola has vents that let that heat escape, cooling the hay and protecting the barn. So we understand why the Park-McCullough Carriage Barn has a cupola, and enjoy its tour de force of angular roof and arched vents topped by an ornate finial and weather vane.
What about the tower atop the Park-McCullough House? The family called it the Observatory. When the House was built, in 1864, the vista from the tower would have included Paran Creek, Bingham and Whipstock Hills, Mount Anthony and the surrounding mountains. Today as the trees have grown up the view is less expansive.
Fashionable houses in downtown Bennington also had towers. Just as farmers like to live close to their barns and fields, mill owners wanted to be near their factories. The towers (often called ‘belvederes’, Italian for ‘beautiful view’) allowed the mill owners to look out over their mills, water traces and mill housing. Two houses on Main Street built by the owners of the Bradford Mill still have their belvederes. Other houses in town still have the steep winding staircases which gave access to the roof -- but the belvederes themselves are gone.
Belvederes did more than provide views. They were cupolas for houses; they let out the heat and helped move the air. When I volunteered at the Park-McCullough House, the Observatory windows were opened in season. The Front Hall entrance had a screen door. We opened it along with the door from the third floor to the tower, and voila! out the tower windows whooshed the heat! Cooling breezes wafted throughout the House. Natural air conditioning!
Before the 1890s this breeze was especially important because screening was not readily available. Open windows allowed bugs and mosquitos to visit. The breeze sent them on to someplace else. At night netting over beds gave protection.
Screens did exist. In the 1850s, Justin Smith Morril added them to his house in Strafford Village. His screens were painted because the iron mesh rusted. Wire was difficult to weave closely so the screens may have been for privacy rather than to keep out flying things. In 1876, a patent was issued for a power loom which wove wire screening for the paper industry to Mr. Wickwire of Cortlandt, N.Y. The amount of screening produced in the U.S. increased exponentially in the next 20 years. By 1900 screened windows were everywhere. The Park-McCullough House screened in the southwest end of the porch, where the visitors entrance is now, as well as the windows.
Electric fans for homes became readily available after WWl. By 1950 air conditioning was an option. Cupolas for houses were relegated to decoration on garage roofs. No one built belvederes. While many houses had, and still have, a path to let cool air in and let the heat out -- a door or window in the basement, a door or hatch into the attic, and an attic window that can be opened in season -- many people forgot that houses, as well as barns, could be cooled by applying simple physics. Observatories, belvederes, were considered fads from an earlier era.
Park-McCullough House and Carriage Barn photographed by Jane Radocchia. Jane Radocchia is a Banner columnist.