Garden Getaways: History of the Gazebo

Gazebos offer picturesque perches for taking in — and enhancing — the landscape.

Although human nature (not to mention, Mother Nature) drives us to seek shelter, something in our instinct also draws us to the great outdoors. A gazebo, (or teahouse, pavilion, belvedere, pergola or summerhouse, depending on its country of origin) is our answer to both calls.

Besides providing a haven for leisure, these small structures are a great project for would-be builders who want to tackle a construction endeavor of manageable scale. What better way to enjoy the outdoors and hone your skills than creating an at-home getaway that’s attainable and fun to embellish?

The first gazebos can be traced back more than 3,000 years to ancient Egypt, where drawings of the structures were sometimes included in murals inside tombs. Of course, at that time gazebos, gardens and leisure time were privileges enjoyed by a royal few. Today, community gardens and public pavilions are open to all, and backyard gazebos are commonplace.

The concept of the gazebo originated with rooftop watchtowers designed for defense, but the open-sided structures eventually gravitated groundward to become landscape highlights. Designed to serve as vantage points for leisure rather than for protection, gazebos were artfully crafted to be jewels within the scenery.

Constructed of stone, wood, metal or even bamboo, the freestanding buildings typically reflected the architectural styles and construction methods of the day. Various forms gradually spread to ancient Rome and Greece, the Middle East, the Far East and throughout medieval Europe.

Besides offering respite and a vantage point from a garden or the crest of a hill, gazebos have served as havens for meditation and spiritual ceremony. Japanese teahouses were detached garden structures created for the traditional preparation and sharing of tea, and in 10th-century Persia, some gazebos even served as temples or burial sites (according to the wishes of their owners, of course).

As gazebos spread to Europe, the at-home getaways tended to reflect architectural trends rather than the design of the property owner’s house. For example, many English gardens boasted French-style gazebos in the 15th century; then the trend shifted to embrace Chinese teahouse designs during the 18th century.

The popular Victorian architecture of the late 19th century spawned a classic gazebo design that endures as a favorite today. Perhaps that is because the era of Victorian design coincides with the dawn of the gazebo’s popularity in North America. At various times since then, traditional gazebos have lost favor to porches, patios and balconies. But what has endured is the ancient concept of small semishelters -- and our age-old longing to be outside, yet in.