Curves with a Purpose: The Untold Story & Brilliance of Crinkle Crankle Walls

Imagine walking down a street and spotting a wall that zigzags like a serpent rather than following a straight line.

Sounds like something from a fantasy novel, right? But no, these are real and they’re called crinkle crankle walls. More than just a whimsical design, these walls are a fascinating blend of history, architecture, and ingenuity.

Popular in England and seen in spots across the U.S., including the University of Virginia, these walls have stories to tell that are as winding as their structure.

A Twist on Traditional Masonry

Brian E. Trimble, an expert on crinkle crankle walls, brings a fresh perspective on masonry. “Everybody thinks about masonry as just square pieces of clay, but when you see them formed into elegant, sinusoidal walls, it changes how you view what masonry can be,” he says.

Trimble, who penned a technical paper on the subject for the Canadian Masonry Symposium, points out that in the U.S., these walls are often called serpentine walls due to their snake-like slither. The term “crinkle crankle” is derived from the Old English for “zig-zag.”

These walls are not just aesthetically distinct; they’re practical.

The sinusoidal pattern, with its concave and convex waves, serves several important purposes. Trimble explains that during the Middle Ages, it was found that these undulating walls aided the growth of fruit trees in cooler climates.

The curves created protective pockets and trapped heat, extending the growing season.

The Jefferson Connection: Bringing English Design to America

Image Credit: christianthiel.net/Shutterstock.

You might be surprised to learn that Thomas Jefferson, the mind behind the Declaration of Independence, had a thing for these wavy walls. While he didn’t invent them, he definitely helped make them famous in America.

Gary Porter from the Masonry Advisory Council calls Jefferson a genius for adapting this unique English style for the University of Virginia in the 1800s. It turns out, there’s a lot more to Jefferson than just politics.

Why Wavy? It’s Not Just About Looking Good

These walls don’t just look cool, they’re pretty smart too. A single sinuous line of bricks is surprisingly stronger and requires fewer bricks than a straight wall.

Think about it: 25% fewer bricks! That’s because they can be constructed with a single wythe (brick layer), while straight walls typically require two. “Serpentine walls can be infinitely long without a pier if the geometry is correct,” Trimble writes.

This proper geometry is crucial and is based on complex mathematical formulas involving radians.

This design isn’t just about saving bricks; it’s a clever way to make walls more resistant to wind and other forces. Who knew walls could be so interesting?

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A Historical Shadow: The University of Virginia’s Untold Story

Image Credit: AC Manley/Shutterstock.

But it’s not all about aesthetics and engineering. The crinkle crankle walls at the University of Virginia hide a darker past.

A study in 2018 revealed that Jefferson intended these walls to conceal the use of slave labor, creating a physical divide on the campus. This adds a layer of complexity to our understanding of these structures and their place in history.

From Ancient Egypt to the English Countryside

The idea of wavy walls dates back to ancient Egypt, but they really took off in England between the 1600s and 1800s (ref). Originally built by Dutch engineers in the Fens, these walls were as practical as they were pretty, sheltering fruit trees from harsh winds and soaking up the sun.

A Lost Art In Modern Construction

Sadly, you don’t see many new crinkle crankle walls these days. The skills and resources needed to build them are quite extensive, making them a rarity in our modern world.

But enthusiasts like Gary Porter hope they make a comeback, adding a touch of character and history to our cities.

Spotting These Zigzag Marvels

Image Credit: Andriy Blokhin/Shutterstock.

For those on a quest to find these architectural gems, Suffolk County in East Anglia, England, is your best bet. In the U.S., they’re a bit of a hidden treasure, with a few known examples in Chicago and Boulder, Colorado.

So the next time you see a wall that’s not straight-laced, take a moment to appreciate the history and ingenuity behind it. It’s not just a wall; it’s a crinkle crankle wall, and it’s got quite the story to tell.

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Davin is a jack-of-all-trades but has professional training and experience in various home and garden subjects. He leans on other experts when needed and edits and fact-checks all articles.