Fan Lights


Jane Radocchia

Fanlight -- an old fashioned name for a half-round window. In the early 1800s everyone would have recognized the references in the name: The shape like an open fan, the bars that held the glass like the ribs of a fan. The word ‘light’ referred to the glass itself. Like a lady’s fan, a fanlight was both useful and highly decorative.

There are many in the Bennington area, few exactly alike. I like to notice them as I go by.

The early ones were placed over the front door. If the ceiling was not high enough in the front hall to allow space above the door for a window, the fan was solid. When the Old First Church with its many rounded windows and fanlight was completed in 1805, its carver, Asa Hyde, settled in town. He probably made many of the fanlights we see today in the early 19th century houses. It is likely he also had apprentices.

By 1830, Main Street in downtown Bennington was lined with substantial houses. The foundry on the east end of Main Street (Route 9) at the Woodford line produced cast iron stoves. Mills were locating along the river. The town prospered.

Greek Revival was the fashionable new style. The crisp half round shape used at the Old First Church and inspired by Rome gave way to softer, Grecian, ellipses and ovals. The gable end of the house was turned to face the street to resemble a Greek temple. That triangle in the gable up under the roof was just the right place not only for a window to light the attic, but for something decorative - a fanlight.

The fanlights in the photograph are in houses on Main Street between Valentine and Safford Street. I don’t know who the owners were; their names are not listed on the Hinsdill map. I admire their pride in their homes, and am glad they were willing to spend their money on conspicuous consumption, fanlights, which still delight me today.

The engraving is from Plate 38 of Asher Benjamin’s very popular pattern book of the time, "The American Builder’s Companion." Asher Benjamin published manuals for carpenters from 1797 and 1843; we know at least one copy was in Bennington. Our carpenters -- ‘joiners’ -- probably knew this book as our fanlights are quite similar to the illustration. Our shapes sometimes are a little awkward -- neither ovals nor ellipses nor half circles -- but the tracery is delicate, light. The lens shapes which hold the ribs together are graceful.

Two things to notice: How the slender ribs are reinforced along their length and how they are gathered at the center. First, the ribs need to be stable to hold the glass. The bands between them strengthen them but look like delicate chains.

Secondly, the ribs come together in the center. They could look like a glop of sticks -- too many trying fit in the same place. How the joiner solves the problem is fun to watch.

A small semi-circle is the simplest choice; sometimes there is a second band which halves the number of ribs. Occasionally a star fills the center.

The Bennington Free Library has Dover reprints of Asher Benjamin’s books in the reference room. See the drawings the joiners and owners shared, then walk along Main Street and look up.

Jane Radocchia is a Banner columnist.


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