A fiddler on the roof sounded a little crazy and precarious to Tevye, the milkman narrator of the famous Broadway musical, but how about a golfer, a cow, a sailing ship, a locomotive, or a fish. Even more bizarre, no? But look around your neighborhood, peer at the rooftops on your commute to work or when you run errands and you’ll find such things all around us, perched high on buildings where we rarely look. You might associate weathervanes with barns and old timey buildings like the grasshopper atop Boston’s Faneuil Hall, but weathervanes are common on many recently built buildings from homes to shopping centers. In an age that eschews architectural ornament and abounds with high tech means of obtaining wind direction, these decorative pointers have remarkable staying power.
Since they’re beyond our common line of sight, I never realized how frequently weathervanes stand above shingles and cupolas surveying all that lies below like lookouts on watch. But once I started seeking them, I found these decorative and often finely crafted wind indicators on office buildings, garages, post offices, restaurants, medical complexes, factories, outbuildings, houses, retail stores, and churches, as well as where I expected them—on barns and venerable government buildings. Made of steel, copper and other metals, I began discovering horses, patriotic eagles, foxes, geese, and animal totems of all kinds, especially roosters silhouetted against the sky. Some weathervanes are abstractly decorative and others depict manmade objects such as a horse and carriage, building, automobile, or the traditional arrow. Others are more fanciful, featuring angels or dragons.
Weathervanes have existed since ancient times. Regardless of design, they are asymmetrically shaped and pivot at the center of gravity enabling them to move around a vertical axis. The portion with more surface area has greater wind resistance therefore pointing the vane in the direction from which the wind is blowing. Typically a compass rose is positioned below to show the wind direction. To be accurate, a weathervane must be mounted on the highest point and at a distance from trees, embankments and taller structures. Inasmuch as most today are decorative, such requirements seem to matter little and in fact the compass points are often not precisely aligned, especially on newer buildings.
I’m especially fond of weathervanes whose images are related to the activity within the building on which they turn, like the golfer who stands sentry above a miniature golf course, a fire truck perched above a firehouse, a gilt cow over a Friendly’s Restaurant or a quill pen above a school. Among my favorites is George’s Garage in Norfolk, Connecticut which has two vanes, one a tow truck, the other an attendant looking under the hood of a car while a woman pumps gas. Another favorite is the large bumblebee hovering above the offices of The Newtown Bee newspaper in the now tragically famous community of Newtown, Connecticut.
Some vanes are more subtle, like the clipper ship on the roof of a strip shopping plaza that houses a toy store, jeweler and realtor in Avon, Connecticut. The plaza has nothing maritime for sale, but is known as the Clipper Shops. Other weathervanes are symbolic, such as the dragon at Kingswood-Oxford School in West Hartford, Connecticut where the sports teams are called the dragons. Those found on churches sometimes feature the fish symbolic of Christ, or a rooster which some say was the emblem of St. Peter but may merely be a chanticleer crowing about the Gospel.
While at one time weathervanes served a practical function in forecasting, few do so today. Rather, they make a statement, screaming a little whimsy from the rooftops. They’re an indicator not of wind, but of the activities and notions of the people below. They suggest stories, often playful, that can enrich our workaday routines. Looking for them turns our gaze to new places and at fresh angles. Paraphrasing Bob Dylan, you don’t need a weathervane to know which way the wind blows.