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CIRCA School: Fanlights

by Jon Valalik (photo by hpaich)

Grab your No. 2 pencils, everyone! It’s time for CIRCA School, where we uncover the fascinating facts behind everyone’s favorite old house details.
Fanlights — semi-circular windows most commonly found above doors — were a typical element of buildings in the 18th century and have since appeared in many architectural styles. The advent of the fanlight is often attributed to the need for more light in the entry halls typical of Georgian architecture, a style regularly credited with popularizing the motif. Some architectural historians believe that Andrea Palladio and his use of arched loggias leading to the entry inspired the actual shape of the fanlight. This idea isn’t so incredible when you consider that the 16th century architect also influenced many other elements of Georgian architecture.


A fanlight on the Orange Johnson House in Worthington, OH. Photo by Pythaglio.

Modern fanlights can be made of a single piece of glass, but in the 18th century the technological advances, which allowed for such large panes of glass to be made, did not yet exist. Due to the hindrance in technology, fanlights were made of many smaller pieces of glass, which opened the door for very elaborate designs. These designs evolved from simple spokes, to batwing designs, and intricate floral patterns.

Historically, fanlights were made of smaller pieces of glass. Photo by MLA.

The typical fanlight is a semi-circular arch and is most often seen directly above the transom (the horizontal structural beam immediately above the door). Because the term “fanlight” describes only the shape of the window, they can also be found in pediments and above other windows. The arches themselves can be stretched and elongated to fit a variety of spaces, and aren’t all necessarily semi-circular.
Fanlights, like most architectural features, have a long history of progression that still occurs today. Many contemporary houses retain the semi-circular shape typical of the Georgian period, though the arrangement of panes on the inside can be very abstract and are obviously made with modern technology. I’ll always appreciate the classic designs however, and especially so in older buildings, which have preserved the original windows so well that the imperfections typical of older fabrication methods are still visible.

An interior fanlight in the Merchant’s House Museum in New York City. Photo by Brad’s Two Cents.



Jon grew up in South Carolina and studied Historic Preservation and Community Planning at the College of Charleston. His time in Charleston sowed a deep appreciation for both classical and vernacular styles and the importance of their conservation. He is currently working in Charlotte, North Carolina and hopes to break into the field of architectural preservation soon.


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