Turrets in Architecture: Definition, Design & Construction

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

Although new castles don't get erected very often anymore, we still find ways to utilize pieces of their unique design for modern day structures. One of these ~'stolen features~' is a turret. Now used a bit differently than their original purpose, turrets are used on a variety of buildings, from forts to suburban houses.

Your Home Is Your Castle

For those who are familiar, hearing the term 'turret' mentioned will often bring to mind images of medieval castles. Turrets are small, tower-like structures on the outside of a building. Because of their history, people who have turrets on their houses can pretend that they are a king or queen in their own homes! But turrets were not always meant for decoration; they were actually invented for a much darker purpose.

Defensive Design

The earliest forms of turrets were made of stone and were used on castles and military forts as a way to see enemies coming from miles away. Turrets, which are built into castle walls near the top of the wall, are not the same as towers, which are typically much larger than turrets and start at the ground level. A turret is curved, allowing those inside to view the world at nearly 360 degrees. Small, slit-like windows allowed those inside the turrets to see out and shoot arrows at the enemy on the ground, but made it difficult for those invading forces to shoot back into the slits. Turrets were excellent weapons in times of war.

As warfare changed and guns and cannons were introduced, the need for defensive turrets declined until they were eliminated entirely. However, while they are no longer useful, there are castles still standing - primarily in France and England - with beautiful examples of these early turrets.

Turret on a Cuban Fort

Turret Highlighted on a Castle

Decorative Elements

When turrets were no longer needed for defense, they were used as rooms in buildings. The arrow slits were done away with and were replaced by large windows. Turrets have to have strong supports so they don't come off the walls, so any renovations were carefully planned.

Turrets saw a resurgence in the 1800s with the popularity of Victorian architecture. The most recognizable use of turrets in Victorian architecture is in the Queen Anne Revival style. This style was popular in America from the late 1880s to the early 1900s. Although it began in England, this style was used in many American homes and is the style most associated with Victorian architecture. The wealthy people of this period enjoyed flaunting their riches and built large homes that looked almost like small castles. Turrets were essential to the design.

Victorian Turret
victorian turret

Turret Construction

Some home designers still use turrets in their homes. Constructing a turret is not as simple as building the rest of a house, though. The walls of most turrets are curved, therefore curved pieces of wood must be used. More preparation is needed than if the builder was putting up the usual four flat walls, so turrets have to be carefully constructed. The first thing to be decided, as you can imagine, is how big the turret is going to be. Most people use turrets as extra space in their houses, perhaps as a sitting room or a small living room.

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