Gazebos can really add something special to your outside space. As well as looking great – they also have a fascinating history behind them.
From ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece, and Persia, to 4th Century China and Japan then Medieval Europe, Gazebos have a long and illustrious history that now includes Modern Day America and your own backyard.
So let’s pull back the curtain of history to discover the origins of that humble gazebo that graces your garden…
What is The Origin of The Word Gazebo?
Speculation abounds as to the origin of the word gazebo. We searched for one answer but have to narrow it to two possible theories.
One theory is that the word is an etymological joke (oh, those hilarious entomologists). The theory goes that the word is a mashup of the English word “gaze” and the Latin suffix ebo, meaning “I shall” – I shall gaze.
Another theory is that the word comes from the French que c’est beau – which means “how beautiful”. Pronounced with a nice French accent, and spoken quickly, the words sound a little like “gazebo”.
(Note to reader: if you are stuck on what exactly a gazebo is, check out this handy reference).
Early Gazebos in Egypt
The Ancient Egyptians recorded a stunning number of details about their lives – in tomb murals. Tomb murals record how the deceased wanted to be remembered but also how they wanted their afterlife. Many times, the mural would include detailed blueprints of gardens.
Like many of us today, the ancient Egyptians loved nature. The Egyptians believed that their gardens were heaven on Earth. As early as 2600 BC, Egyptians used gazebos as garden temples to commune with their gods.
The Egyptians liked to place their gazebos near water. Many had pools filled with fish nearby, and they planted vines to grow up the sides. They may have believed the vines would help them on their journey to the heavens.
Some historians believe that the Egyptians loved their gardens so much they wanted to have them in their afterlife as well. To help the gods recreate their gardens, they had the layout sketched in the murals on their tomb.
Here’s a fascinating website on the garden paintings in the Tomb of Nebamun.
Roman & Greek Gazebos
The Greeks didn’t display their wealth in private gardens. Instead, they built public gardens around temples with gazebos nearby. Gazebos were built from stone in the style of the temple and often had statues of gods or goddesses.
Historians think the Greeks used the public gazebos to discuss politics, philosophy or just to socialize.
The Romans were also nature-lovers. Almost all Romans, wealthy or not, had private gardens to grow flowers and vegetables. Wealthy Romans built stone gazebos near their homes and used them for socializing.
During the summer, wealthy Romans would go to summer houses at the sea and view the Mediterranean from their gazebos.
Gazebos in Ancient Persia
The Persians are famous for their gardens. Opulent gazebos were added to private gardens, often near fabulous pools or fountains. Located in the desert of modern-day Iran, the lush gardens and pools of water are engineering marvels.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are hailed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – and it was pretty wonderful. To water the Garden, the Persians built a system of underground aqueducts (qanats) that transported snow melt from the mountains down to the city of Babylon.
The Persian gazebos were built near water using many different styles, from tents to ornate structures. Often, they incorporated ornate, geometric designs.
They built two-storied gazebos with viewing platforms, silk fabric and gold seats. Wealthy Persians could escape the heat in their two-storied gazebos. The private gazebos were also places to do business and sign treaties.
They built gazebos with marble floors that were cooled by a stream. According to historians, some Persians were even entombed in their gazebo.
The French can be credited for popularizing gazebos in Europe. In the 1300s, gazebos were built at wealthy properties all across France and Europe. During the 14th and 15th centuries, four gazebos were built by the French at the Louvre.
In Elizabethan England, gazebos were built in the style of the main house and were used for entertaining.
Gazebos in Renaissance Italy & Europe
During the Renaissance, gazebos were built as shrines or places for meditation.
In Italy, belvederes became popular. Belvedere is Italian for “a beautiful view”. Belvederes had roofs and one or more open sides but were typically located inside another building – on a top floor. Belvederes inside buildings provided light and fresh air.
Freestanding belvederes, built outside, were close cousins of the gazebo. These were built in monastery gardens as garden shrines.
The Influence of Chinese & Japanese Gazebos
China and Japan have long been home to small pavilions or teahouses in the garden. They were considered spiritual places to rest and commune with nature. China began the trend sometime in the 4th century and it eventually spread to Japan.
Chinese garden temples were quite elaborate. The gazebos were built of wood, which could withstand earthquakes but not fires. The elaborate gazebos incorporated Chinese art and iconography. Pagodas, which are very similar to gazebos, were built of wood and painted in traditional colors of gold, black and red.
The Chinese gazebos and pagodas were used for meditation and worship.
Simple, minimalist gazebos in Japanese gardens were built to house the elaborate Tea Ceremony. Japanese gazebos were situated in the garden, away from the main house, where solitude and refuge were found.
Gazebos in Japan were influenced by Zen Buddhists and were located at Zen temples. Often located in a rock garden, Japanese gazebos were designed for quiet solitude.
The elaborate Chinese style gazebo (aka summerhouses or temples) began to expand to Europe in the late 18th century. This is around the time that the term “gazebo” first became popular, after a book entitled “New Design for Chinese Temples” by William Halfpenny.
Gazebos in 19th & 20th Century America
Gazebo popularity in America began in the mid-1800s, when the country’s middle class began to prosper. At the turn of the century, houses were built with large, encompassing porches or large decks in the back yards.
Porches and decks ruled until around 1980, when gazebos began gaining popularity again. Instead of large, public structures for bands, the public found that a gazebo could turn their backyard into a private heaven.
Exactly like the cultures that came before us, gazebos have found popularity again as a quiet space to meditate, feel close to nature, gather with friends and family – and enjoy the views.
Contemporary US Gazebos
Today, gazebos come in all sizes and shapes, from large to small, permanent to pop up. Gazebos are used for all sorts of purposes. They have roofs that provide shelter from the rain and snow but no walls to allow you to gaze at all of Mother Nature’s glory.
Large, public gazebos can serve as bandstands, concert locations or wedding venues. Large gazebos are permanent structures with floors and heavy uprights that support the solid roof. There are no fixed walls, but fabric is sometimes used as a temporary wall.
Small backyard gazebos can be placed as focal points in a garden. Backyard gazebos can be large enough for a hot tub or for a large gathering of friends and family. They can be permanently installed or built to be put away in the winter.
Backyard gazebos can be built in the architectural style of your house or something totally different. They can be built by a professional or from a kit. Built from wood and roofed with shingles or built with metal and fabric.
Build a gazebo next to a pool or near the entrance to a garden. Put up bright fabric walls that tie back or install trellises with Clematis, Bougainvillea, Honeysuckle or Morning Glories.
Build them the size you want – big enough for an enchanting space for two (with a daybed and lots of tiny lights) or large enough for all your family, tables, chairs, a outdoor bar or an outdoor kitchen. Add a gas fire pit, removable screened walls, wine refrigerator, or a fireplace with a chimney.
Like the ancient Persians and Egyptians, build your gazebo near a water feature or build a water feature near your gazebo.
Pop up gazebos are popular for camping, BBQ, or sports parties. They are super fun and totally affordable. Pop up gazebos do just that – they are designed to spring upright with minimal set up time. Sudden rainstorm during your picnic? No problem.
Pop up gazebos come with carry bags so you can pop them up in the mountains, the lake, the beach, the concert or at the game.
Check out some great gazebo ideas here (this author likes the Tiki hut one).
The history of your humble backyard gazebo sure is fascinating – I had no idea their backstory was so long and varied before researching this article.
Knowing much more about them almost makes the act of using them even more attractive, so I’ll remember this little history lesson next time I’m lying back on the lounger in my gazebo with a cold beer.
In that case, all that’s left to say on this subject is ‘Cheers to gazebos!’ 🙂
Homeowner and property investor Larry James founded Take a Yard in 2020 to bring you the very best outdoor living content, based on his years of experience managing outside spaces. Read more >