What Is a Gable? Definitions and Examples

The Gable and the Gable Roof

Gable End of House (Left) and Illustration of Cross Gables, Two Gables, Front and Side, and a Valley Roof (Right)
Gable End of House (Left) and Illustration of Cross Gables, Two Gables, Front and Side, and a Valley Roof (Right). Left photo by Michael Boys/Corbis Historical/Getty Images; right illustration by Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images (cropped)

A gable is the triangular wall formed by a sloping roof. The roof is not the gable—the wall is the gable down to the roof line, but you generally need a gable roof to have a gable. It's common to name the triangular area made from a gambrel roof a gable, as well. Some definitions even include the end edges of the roof as part of the gable. When discussing gables with your architect or contractor, don't be shy about asking what their definition is.

For example, some people call the gable wall as the wall on the gable side right down to the foundation. Others rightly call the gable wall as that part of the siding between the slopes of the roof.

In general, the distinguishing feature of the gable is its triangular shape.

Where Does the Word "Gable" Come From?

Pronouned GAY-bull, the word "gable" may be derived from the Greek word kephalē meaning "head." Gabel, the German word for a tined "fork," seems to be a closer and more recent match to today's definition. One can imagine the impromptu construction projects at the German dining table using utensils to create Primitive Hut types of buildings—balancing forks, intertwined tines, into tent-like constructions.

More Definitions of Gable:

"the triangular portion of a wall defined by the sloping edges of the roof and a horizontal line between the eave line. Can also be a gabled dormer."—John Milnes Baker, AIA
"1. The vertical triangular portion of the end of a building having a double-sloping roof, from the level of the cornice or eaves to the ridge of the roof. 2. A similar end when not triangular in shape, as of a gambrel roof or the like."Dictionary of Architecture and Construction

Types of Gables:

A building with a gable roof may be front-gabled, side-gabled, or cross-gabled.

Like the illustration shown here, cross-gabled buildings have gables both on the front and on the side, created by a valley roof.

Porches and dormers may be gabled. Gable dormers are actually specialized windows—or windows in gables.

A pediment is a specific type of classical gable, less functionally dependent on the roof and more structurally useful atop a series of columns or as decoration above a door or window.

Gables can extend above the roof line in fanciful designs or, more often, in parapets. The corbiestep is a parapet that can exaggerate the gable.

Examples of Gables:

Photos of gables show the varieties that can be found around the world. Different architectural styles, sizes, and decoration make this primitive architectural element come to life throughout the ages. The side gable is typical of Cape Cod style homes, and the front gable is common in many bungalows. Front and side gables are generally part of the Minimal Traditional style post-Depression homes from the mid-20th century. Katrina Cottages and the Katrina Kernel Cottage II are traditionally front-gabled. High-pitched gables are characteristic of Tudor style homes. Look for architectural details that often define a house style.

The 1668 Turner-Ingersoll mansion in Salem, Massachusetts may be the most famous gabled house of all—the setting of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1851 novel The House of the Seven Gables.

Gables Build Character:

How often have we driven by a house with two large front gables and felt that the eyes of the home, with raised brow, were inspecting our every move? The American author Nathanial Hawthorne created such a character in The House of the Seven Gables. "The aspect of the venerable mansion has always affected me like a human countenance," says the book's narrator in Chapter 1.  Like a human face? "The deep projection of the second story gave the house such a meditative look, that you could not pass it without the idea that it had secrets to keep, and an eventful history to moralize upon."

What gives character to a home—and what architectural details make your home a character?

It could be the gables. The house gables in Hawthorne's 1851 book seem to interact with the other characters:

"But, as the sunlight left the peaks of the Seven Gables, so did the excitement fade out of Clifford's eyes."—Chapter 10
"There was a vertical sundial on the front gable; and as the carpenter passed beneath it, he looked up and noted the hour."—Chapter 13

Nathaniel Hawthorne skillfully describes the gabled house as a living, breathing entity. The house, with all its gables, has character. It breathes and is warmed by its burning (fireplace) heart:

"The house itself shivered, from every attic of its seven gables down to the great kitchen fireplace, which served all the better as an emblem of the mansion's heart, because, though built for warmth, it was now so comfortless and empty."—Chapter 15

The human qualities of Hawthorne's house create a haunting image. The gabled dwelling becomes the haunted house of New England storytelling. Can a house get a reputation—like a person?

Sources: American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton, 1994, p. 173; Dictionary of Architecture and Construction, Cyril M. Harris, ed., McGraw-Hill, 1975, p. 223