Turret Towers: An Architectural Fairytale

Turret Towers: An Architectural Fairytale
Reading time: 5 min

Once upon a time seems an appropriate way to open a tale about turret towers. They are, after all, most often associated with the fairytale Rapunzel, in which the eponymous princess is imprisoned in a tower that can only be accessed by climbing her hair to reach her turret window.

In fact, the tower said to have inspired that particular story still draws tourists today. While the best-known version is the German fairytale penned by the world-famous Grimm Brothers, the idea is thought to stem from the ancient city of Nicomedia (today part of Turkey) and the legend of Saint Barbara – a Christian martyr locked away by her protective father. While little evidence remains to support the legend, the enchanting Galata Tower is frequently referred to as the “Rapunzel Tower” because of its quintessentially fairytale design, which even now tops many tour group itineraries.

The image of Rapunzel’s golden hair tumbling from a turret has become so ingrained in our collective imagination that turrets today are considered almost inseparable from love stories and fairytale castles – but in real life, they were born of a much more practical idea.

A Tale As Old As Time

Turret, tower, castle

In the days before National Trusts and public tours, medieval castles served as not just romantic relics of times gone by, but as the hub of noble life and the kingdom’s crucial fortress during conflict. As such, design elements were required to be not just aesthetically pleasing but fully functional as well.

When turret towers were first introduced, they were not the home of damsels, but they did provide cover for those in distress. The elevated position allowed soldiers to take a defensive position during battles, while providing a strong position from which to fire on any enemy forces that approached the castle walls – in a similar fashion to the hourds that were the forefathers of modern balconies.

As they became a more common feature, the focus shifted to style. In Scottish Baronial style castles, they were used in a much more decorative fashion. This trend endured throughout architectural movements all the way to the late Victorian era homes, where buildings that fell under the Queen Anne style frequently featured elaborate turret rooms adjacent to sitting rooms. It’s thought that this continued preference for turret rooms was in part influenced by the 19th Century art movement of the Great Romantics.

A Tale of Two (Types Of) Towers

Turret, tower, castle

Often, differentiation between “turrets” and “towers” is put down to pedantry, but there are key architectural disparities between the two. The latter typically begins at ground level, and often serves as a separate structure or at least its own terraced room. Turrets, on the other hand, are often adjunct to other rooms, and sit on the second floor or above.

Another separate but often underused term is an “apse”, which specifically refers to the domed semi-circular rooms often found in 14th Century churches and today used in nostalgic architecture to add an element of grandeur to a building’s design.

Fairest In All the Land

Turret, tower, castle - London Tower

One of the most famous turrets is located at the Tower of London. In fact, there are four turrets situated at the White Tower of the one-time jail that dominates London’s North Bank, each five stories high. Three of these are square in silhouette, while one is rounded – making it the perfect site for the famous Royal Observatory.

Another iconic turret tops the beautiful Belem Tower in Lisbon. Once a 16th Century harbor fortress and today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Belem Tower is recognized around the globe for its intricate stonework and, of course, its decorative corner turrets.

For more modern inspiration, one could look to the Hamptons, to Christie Brinkley’s appropriately named Tower Hill estate. On the market for an impressive $30 million – a sum that’s unsurprising given the spacious grounds and romantic architecture dating back to 1891. One of the estate’s most notable features is a five-story tower, once used by the Gardiner family to keep an eye on their extensive land. Today, it boasts a beautiful ocean view as well as an excellent opportunity for stargazing.

A Modern Day Fairytale

Turret, tower

While there is little need for turret towers as battle structures in today’s society, architects still find many purposes for the design. Circular silhouettes make the perfect scape for large bay windows, allowing light into sitting rooms and making the most of natural views. This idea is often extended into open-air gazebo balconies, which offer a contemporary twist on the traditional turret.

If you’re feeling inspired to add your own turret to your property, architect Lee Jacobsen offers practical advice. He emphasizes the importance of ratio, stating that balancing proportions is one of the biggest challenges when making a new addition to a house. Laura Smiros, a partner at Smiros&Smiros Architects, adds that they work best with “informally structured homes” rather than symmetrical buildings.

While there are a number of factors to take into consideration before beginning your renovations, there are some aspects deemed entirely flexible. For example, there are no set rules dictating the placement of your turret tower, nor are there many restrictions on shape. Today’s designs range from hexagonal structures set at the center of a house to traditional rounded shapes placed in the corner.

Even through transitioning times, trends and traditions, the love affair between architects and turret towers persists. It seems this is one design trend destined to remain happily ever after.