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    Auction Finds

    A heavy metal barn cupola

    I stood there perplexed, not quite sure what to make of this metal miniature building sitting on the auction-house floor. It was too large and rustic to be a doll house: It had no windows, but it did have a pitched roof and four sides.

    I looked to my right and saw another auction-goer staring at it, too. What is it? I asked. “It goes on a barn,” he guessed. He seemed unsure so I decided to check the bid sheet on the counter near the office to see for myself. The piece was listed as a “twin cupola.”

    So he was right. And after hearing him and reading the description, my mind’s eye slowly recognized the piece as one of those toppers on barn roofs. I hadn’t seen that many in person, but I knew that they – especially the wooden ones – could be found in various parts of the country. Then I remembered seeing them on some old public buildings, including one on the old State House in Boston when I was vacationing there in September.

    barn cupola

    A side view of the metal cupola ready to be sold at auction.

    I was not the only auction-goer mystified by the metal piece. I watched as others stopped in front of it, too, guessing at what it might be. “Some type of cupola off a building,” one auction-goer said. Another figured that it could be reconfigured for a dog house.

    This looked to be a very heavy cupola, standing some 3 1/2 feet tall, and I wondered what barn it came from and how old it was. It also looked ancient, and the wear on its exterior indicated that it had weathered and withstood all kinds of elements. I could only assume that it was one of the few parts of a barn worth saving after the structure was torn down.

    Cupolas (pronounced “kew-pa-la”) seemed to have been built more for function than appeal, although some were decorative. Handmade out of wood, the earliest were erected atop cathedrals to allow light to enter the sanctuaries, according to the website a company that makes and sells weather vanes.

    barn cupola

    An up-close view of the decorative scalloped top of the barn cupola.

    Later, cupolas became pretty popular as a light and ventilation system on top of barns to keep the hay dry inside, and allow heat to escape and air to circulate. Metal cupolas came after the wooden ones and were made by blacksmiths, followed by manufactured steel structures, according to a 2006 article on about a Minnesota man who collects them.

    The barn cupola at auction was similar to a Butler copula in a photo on the site. That one was smaller but the style looked the same. The Butler cupola, which was made in Minnesota, is considered the most sturdy, according to the collector in the article. The cupola at auction surely appeared to be so. I found a Butler Mfg. Co. of Kansas City, MO, in a 1916 catalog of farm implements for sale (and I also found it identified as a barn maker). It was among several makers of barn cupolas and ventilators, and two of those products were listed as Butler Round and Butler Square.

    barn cupola

    A view of one side of the metal barn cupola.

    The wooden cupolas I saw on the web had windows or louvers, but the metal ones did not. I wasn’t sure how the metal ones could have offered any ventilation or light. None of the surfaces on the cupola at auction seemed to open.

    Several sites on the web were selling newly constructed cupolas in various colors, styles, sizes and materials, including wood and vinyl. I found an antique one selling for $1,550, and others for around that price and slightly less on eBay.

    Here are some examples of cupolas on rooftops. Here are some early 20th-century ones in Pennsylvania. You can also build your own and top it with a weather vane rooster, horse or whatever.




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