Widow's walks, also known as a roofwalks, are rooftop platforms surrounded by a railing. While not exclusive to Nantucket they are part of the island's architectural landscape whose original purpose is not as romantic as the widow's walk name suggests. They were built to give homeowners rooftop access to put out chimney fires that were a common occurrence during the 19th century when fireplaces were also used for cooking causing the inner chimney walls to become covered with flammable grease over time.
Nantucket is a historical and romantic place. It is reasonable to believe that on occasion roofwalks were used on Nantucket by sea merchants and sailors' wives to view activity in Nantucket harbor, but the intended use of fire prevention remains more pragmatic. Ironically, the platforms are called roofwalks on Nantucket. In 1925 the President of the Nantucket Historical Society stated "As all good Nantucketers know, they are just plain 'walks,' and were never called anything else until quite recently." and followed up by stating that they should not be called anything else.
Call it a roofwalk, widow's walk, or whatever you please, today they are seen as an architectural design feature that is as desirable for its historical significance as it is for its access to the incredible views Nantucket has to offer.
- On Nantucket they are referred to as roofwalks, on the mainland they are often called widow's walks.
- Built on many Nantucket homes during the island's whaling boom.
- Originally intended to give rooftop access to put out chimney fires.
- At the turn of the 19th century, many roofwalks were in disrepair and removed. As of 1937, a survey found that only 10% of roof walks remained.
- The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about roof walks featuring 10 Lincoln Ave, Nantucket MA, exclusively listed by Gary Winn and Barbara Jenkins.