Albany man has a love for cupolas

Richard Mayers identifies this artistic cupola as “the one with the jester’s hat,” but that’s as far as it goes, as there are no cupola references to help him find out more, and no information on the cupola itself. Photo by Bill Vossler

Richard Mayers suffers for his art.  “I am afflicted with the love of barn cupolas,” the 75-year-old Albany man said. “My neck is all cricked trying to spot new ones.”

But more than looking, Mayers collects cupolas, which means crawling on roofs to dismantle the venting devices.  “That work isn’t easy, but if you want to save them…  Many are a century old.  Some pre-World War II metal and wood ones are truly works of art.”

The Challenge

Richard’s interest began 35 years ago after an auction where two large metal cupolas had brought $22.

“At first I thought they’d paid too much.  Then I realized I’d passed up an opportunity to collect century-old antique artistic items,” he said.

Richard was hooked, and now boasts 55 in his collection, from 5 pounds to 500 pounds, 1 ½ to 14 feet tall, 10 inches to five feet across.  “From down below they don’t look nearly that huge,” he said.

He started with common metal ones of zinc-covered steel.  “The zinc is supposed to prevent rusting, but nail or bullet holes take care of that.  It’s a rare metal cupola without rust.”

Despite the rust, he sees beauty.  “Cupolas built in southern Minnesota, often the Albert Lea area, are absolute works of art.  The builders used inch-wide steel sheets and created ringlet designs from the base up to the point,” he says.  One favorite he calls the “jester hat,“ but like much of cupola collecting, little information is available.

This Chief is one of the largest cupolas ever made, standing some 13 ½ feet high. Photo by Bill Vossler

Designs include bells, hearts, bows and others embossed on the cupola rings, which enhanced looks and strengthened the metal.

Some carry identification, like two of the oldest manufacturers, King Ventilator Co., Owatonna, Minnesota, and James Mfg. Co., Ft. Atkins, Wisconsin.  Many don’t.

“That’s very frustrating,” Richard said.  “And there are no reference works to help me,” he said.

Richard is partial to square-bottomed cupolas, like Butlers and LaCrosses.  “Butlers are so solid I wonder if a tornado could rip them off a barn.  Their square bases fit very tightly into the square hole in the rafters.  Thick steel meant you couldn’t undent a Butler like you can others.”

Richard said its amazing to consider the time involved in hand-building metal cupolas and making them artistic.

“Everything was hand-soldered.  Even if you held the parts in place with a jig and magnet, imagine the time required!  No screws, no bolts, no spot-welding.  Chicken wire kept pigeons and their zinc-eating urine out.

“On the other hand, Pierz, Minnesota, cupolas were plain-Jane as can be, simply built to work.  Hudson and Clay too, probably manufactured by machines.  A dozen could be churned out for every one those artistic Albert Lea builders made.

Wooden Cupolas

Richard has tried to buy this eight-sided cupola for years. Photo by Bill Vossler

Some of the most beautiful cupolas of all are wooden, Richard said.  Like his favorite, an eight-sider on a barn half an hour away.  “I‘ve seen six-sided and round, but this is the only 8-sided cupola I’ve ever seen. Great skill in the making.  For years I’ve tried to wrangle that 8-sided one away from the owner, but he’s not interested.”

Another wooden beauty is on the carriage house at the Museum Encompassing Canby Community Area (MECCA) Museum at Canby, Minnesota.  “Whoever did that was a real artist.  Imagine making exact angle cuts inside a cupola where space limited him to the smallest draw on the handsaw.  Must have taken forever.  Huge pride, great skill.”

One of Richard’s, a 500 pound behemoth, has three-way joints so closely-cut a playing card won’t fit between them. “Done by hand. Astonishing.”

Every carpenter creates his own design, Richard said.  “I’ve traveled an awful lot around the country.  A particular wooden cupola in one five-mile-radius area will not be duplicated anywhere else.  You won‘t see Illinois cupolas up here, or vice versa.”

Adding to the Collection

The difficulty in collecting cupolas isn’t finding them–it’s getting them down.  “It’s a real challenge, especially now as we age.”

Richard and his crew took down two metal and one wooden cupolas.  

A rare copper cupola. Photo by Bill Vossler

“The steelies each took an hour.  The wooden one was another story.  They’re monstrous to work with.”  600 feet of rope tied to a car, up through the hayloft, looped through and around the cupola.

“Most of a cupola’s weight is on top, so unless it’s properly secured when it’s loosened from the roof, it will flip and crumble.”  Each worker has a job: direct the giving or taking of rope, feeding it, pulling, lifting, evaluating, adjusting.

On this L-shaped barn the cupola had to come off where the two barns meet.  It slid down the valley under control–and got stuck between corrugated tin ridges.  “So two guys had to crawl down this steeply-angled roof and ease that 500-pound cupola over the ridges, one by one.  We backed the trailer under, gave slack, and down it tumbled, suspended six inches above my trailer.  Everybody thought I was a genius,” he laughed.  “Two hours to get ready and four more hours on the roof.  But we got this piece of heritage down.”

One of Richard’s most challenging removals was already on the ground.  “A big snowstorm toppled a barn. I could have the cupola only if I got it immediately, because the owner was going to burn everything the next day.”

The unstable roof required working while standing on rungs of laid-flat ladders in bitter cold.  Frozen tar pitch had to be chopped out with axes.  Once the 150-lb. cupola was freed, it still had to be carried to the trailer, no easy task.

“It took six of us two and a half hours of hard work,“ Richard said.  “But I didn’t want it to get pounded to bits.  It had heritage.”

Demise of Barn Jewelry

A smaller cupola with some details. Photo by Bill Vossler

“Eventually these old cupolas will go the way of the Dodo bird,” Richard said.  “In a few decades, this barn jewelry is going to disappear.  It will be a great loss.  They’re not like earrings or pendants.  These things worked.  No cupola can compete with a farm fan, but when you realize they figured out that you could dry sweet clover in the haymow with a piece of tin on the roof to draw out the heat and moisture, and that it worked for an awful long time before electricity, you start thinking some of the old ways might have been the best ways.”