What is a Clerestory Window?

Natural Light Comes from Above

Clerestory windows above a wall of bookcases in the Frank Lloyd Wright designed sitting room at the Rosenbaum House in Alabama
Clerestory windows in the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Rosenbaum House in Alabama. Photo by Alan Weintraub / Passage / Getty Images (cropped)

A clerestory window is a large window or series of small windows atop a high wall of a building. The clerestory wall often rises above adjoining roofs. In a large building, like a gymnasium or train station, the windows will be large to bring light into a large interior. A smaller home may have a band of narrow windows along the very top of a wall.

Originally, the word clerestory referred to the upper level of a church or cathedral.

The Middle English word clerestorie means "clear story," which describes how an entire story of height was cleared to illuminate large interiors.

How is the Word Pronounced?

Clerestory is pronounced clear story.

When To Use Clerestory Windows:

If you want to maintain wall space AND keep a room well-lighted, consider this type of window arrangement for your home. It's one way to use architectural design to Help Your Home Out of the Darkness. Clerestory windows are most often used to naturally illuminate large spaces such as sports arenas, transportation terminals, and gymnasiums. As modern sports stadia became enclosed, with and without retractable roofing systems, the "clerestory lens," as it's called on the 2009 Cowboy Stadium, became more common.

Early Christian Byzantine Architecture featured these windows to shed overhead light into the massive spaces builders were beginning to construct.

Romanesque architects expanded the design technique as cathedrals achieved more grandeur from height. The Gothic churches made clerestories an art form.

Some say it was Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) who adapted that Gothic art form to residential architecture. Wright was an early promoter of natural light and ventilation, no doubt in response to working in the Chicago area during the height of America's industrialization.

By 1893 Wright had his prototype for the Prairie Style in the Winslow House, showing a full line of what architects call "fenestration," or glass window placement, running directly under the eave overhang. By 1908 Wright was still struggling with a perfectly beautiful design when he wrote "...often I used to gloat over the beautiful buildings I could build if only it were unnecessary to cut holes in them...." The holes, of course, are the windows and doors.

"The best way to light a house is God's way—the natural way...." Wright wrote that in The Natural House, a 1954 classic book on American architecture. The best natural way, according to Wright, is to place the clerestory along the southern exposure of the structure. The clerestory window "serves as a lantern" to the house.

More Definitions of Clerestory or Clearstory:

"1. An upper zone of wall pierced with windows that admit light to the center of a lofty room. 2. A window so placed."—Dictionary of Architecture and Construction, Cyril M. Harris, ed., McGraw- Hill, 1975, p. 108
"The topmost windows of a church nave, those above the aisle roof, thus any high band of windows"—G. E. Kidder Smith, FAIA, Sourcebook of American Architecture, Princeton Architectural Press, 1996, p. 644.
"A series of windows placed high on a wall. Evolved from the Gothic churches where the clerestory appeared above the aisle roofs."—American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton, 1994, p. 169

Architectural Examples of Clerestory Windows:

  • Clerestory windows illuminate many of Frank Lloyd Wright's homes, especially the Usonian designs, including the Zimmerman House and the Toufic Kalil Home.
  • Natural light from a clerestory window above a Grand Central Terminal Chandelier enhances electric (or gas) lighting at the transportation venue in NYC.
  • Many students designs submitted to the U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) Solar Decathlon incorporate energy efficient clerestory windows, like Stanford University students did with their Start.Home design.
  • In addition to adding clerestory windows to residential designs, Frank Lloyd Wright also used rows of glass in more traditional settings, such as his Unity Temple, Annunciation Greek Orthodox, and the original library, the Buckner Building, for Florida Southern College in Lakeland.
  • Frank Lloyd Wright also influenced how other architects designed modern residences, as seen in the 1922 Schindler Chace House designed by the Austrian-born R. M. Schindler.

Learn More:

Source: Frank Lloyd Wright On Architecture: Selected Writings (1894-1940), Frederick Gutheim, ed., Grosset's Universal Library, 1941, p. 38