All About Parapets and Battlements

Some of the most lasting architecture was built for protection. Fortifications like castles have given us practical features still in use today. Explore the parapet and battlement, described here with photo examples.
 

 

01
of 08

The Parapet

white house with large wall projecting above the ront door and on the gable ends
Parapets on the Burgher House, 1797, Stellenbosch, South Africa. Photo by Paul Thompson/Photolibrary Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

A parapet is a low wall projecting from the edge of a platform, terrace, or roof. Parapets may rise above the cornice of a building or form the upper portion of a defensive wall on a castle. Parapets have a long architectural history and go by different names—some are pictured here.

General Definitions of Parapet

The extension of a masonry wall above the roof line.—John Milnes Baker, AIA
A low wall, sometimes battlemented, placed to protect any spot where there is a sudden drop, for example, at the edge of a bridge, quay, or house-top.—Penguin Dictionary

Examples of Parapets

In the U.S. Mission style homes have rounded parapets used as decorative features. Parapets are a common characteristic of this style architecture. Here are some specific buildings with different types of parapets:

  • The Alamo — In 1849 the U.S. Army added a parapet to the 1718 Alamo Mission in San Antonio, Texas in order to hide the crumbling roof. This parapet may be the most famous in America.
  • Casa Calvet — Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí has elaborate sculptural parapets on his ornate buildings, including this Barcelona landmark.
  • Alhambra — The parapet along the roof of the Alhambra citadel in Granada, Spain was used as a defensive battlement in the 16th century.
  • Old-New Synagogue — A series of stepped parapets decorate the gable of this medieval synagogue in the Czech Republic city of Prague.
  • Lyndhurst — Parapets can also be seen on the roof of the grand Gothic Revival home in Tarrytown, New York.
  • Celebration, Florida — Parapets have become a historic and cultural part of American architecture. When the Disney company developed a planned community near Orlando, the architects playfully displayed some of the architectural traditions of America, sometimes with amusing results.

Origins of the Word Parapet

A parapet is sometimes called a parapetto (Italian), parapeto (Spanish), breastwork, or brustwehr (German). All of these words have similar meanings — to guard or defend (parare) the chest or breast (petto from the Latin pectus, as in the pectoral region of your body when you're at the gym).

Other German words include brückengeländer and brüstung, because "brust" means "chest."

The original design and use of the parapet was as a battlement in a fortified structure.

02
of 08

The Battlement or Crenellation

stone projections rising from a stone wall overlooking water
The 15th Century Topkapi Palace's Crenellated Parapet on the Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by Florian Kopp/Getty Images

On a castle, fort, or other military fortification, a battlement is the top part of the wall that looks like teeth. It's where soldiers were protected during "battle" upon the castle. Also called crenellation, a battlement is really a parapet with open spaces for the castle-protectors to shoot cannons or other weaponry. The raised portions of the battlement are called merlons. The notched openings are called embrasure or crenels.

The word crenellation means something with squared notches, or crenels. If something is "crenelled," it has notches, from the Latin word crena meaning "notch." If a wall is "crenelated," it's bound to be a battlement with notches. A battlement parapet is also known as a castellation or embattlement.

Masonry buildings in the Gothic Revival style may have architectural decoration which resembles battlements. House moldings that resemble the battlement pattern are often called crenelated molding or embattled molding.

Definition of Battlement or Embattlement

1. A fortified parapet with alternate solid parts and openings, termed respectively "merlons" and "embrasures" or "crenels" (hence crenelation). Generally for defense, but employed also as a decorative motif. 2. A roof or platform serving as battle post. Dictionary of Architecture and Construction
03
of 08

The Corbiestep

large two-story white house with dark shutters, collonade side porch, and large parapets on each side gable
Huggins' Folly c. 1800, now Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire. Photo by Huntstock / Photolibrary / Getty Images (cropped)

A corbiestep is a stepped parapet along the gable part of a roof — a common architectural detail throughout the U.S. A gable with this type of parapet is often called a step gable. In Scotland, a "corbie" is a large bird, like a crow. The parapet is known by at least three other names: corbiestep; crowstep; and catstep.

Definitions of Corbiestep

The stepped edge of a gable masking a pitched roof, found in northern European masonry, 14th to 17th cent., and in derivatives. — Dictionary of Architecture and Construction
Steps on the coping of a gable, used in Flanders, Holland, North Germany and East Anglia and also in C16 and C17 [16th and 17th centuries] Scotland. — "Corbie Steps (or Crow Steps)," The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture
04
of 08

1884 Town Offices Building

red brick town building with front gable parapet
A Crow-Stepped Gable Parapet on the Facade of the 1884 Town Offices in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Photo © Jackie Craven

Corbiesteps can make a simple masonry home look more stately or a public building appear larger and more regal. Compared with the side-step-gable of the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire, the architecture of this public building in Stockbridge, Massachusetts has an enhanced facade with front-gable corbiesteps.

05
of 08

Behind the Corbiestep Facade

metal flashing along the parapet of a Stockbridge, Massachusetts brick building
Behind the Corbiestep Gable of the 1884 Town Offices in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Phtoo © Jackie Craven

A parapet can make any building appear larger than it actually is to today's eye. This was not the original intent of the architectural detail, however. For a 12th century castle, the wall was protection to stand behind.

 

06
of 08

12th century Castle Landau

tourists at wooden tables overlooking the green valley beyond the castle walls
View from Fortification of the 12th century Castle Landau in Klingenmuenster, Germany. Photo by EyesWideOpen / Getty Images News / Getty Images

This popular castle in Klingenmuenster, Germany allows tourists to experience a view from the battlement.

07
of 08

Bab al-Wastani, c. 1221

old fortification near palm tree in Iraq
Bab al Wastani c. 1221, Baghdad, Iraq. Photo by Vivienne Sharp Heritage Images / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Parapets and battlements are found around the world, in any area that has experienced power struggles for land and authority. The ancient city of Baghdad in Iraq was developed as a circular, fortified city. Invasions during the middle ages were deflected by large walls like the one seen here.

08
of 08

Fortified Houses

fortified house with crenellation in the hills of Italy
Old Fortified House in Italy. Photo by Richard Baker In Pictures Ltd. / Corbis News / Getty Images

Today's decorative parapets derive from the very functional battlements of walled cities, castles, and fortified country homes and plantation estates. Like many other architectural details, what was once functional and pragmatic is now used as ornamentation, bringing forth the historic look of a previous age.

Sources

  • American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton, 1994, p. 175
  • The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture, Third Edition, by John Fleming, Hugh Honour, and Nikolaus Pevsner, Penguin, 1980, pp. 81-82, 237
  • Dictionary of Architecture and Construction, Cyril M. Harris, ed., McGraw- Hill, 1975, pp. 45, 129
  • Inline photo of Casa Calvet © Flickr Member "Cebete" and Crenelated Molding clipart courtesy Florida Center for Instructional Technology, FCIT