To be wealthy and not know what to do with your money. It’s something many of us dream about. Before Super Cars and Super Yachts, the wealthy in the 16th-19th centuries whose properties lacked ancient structures and ruins, built gorgeous buildings just to compete with their neighbors. These practices still continued up to modern times.
Such useless buildings (called follies) were built with no purpose in mind except demonstrating wealth and outdoing your neighbors or trying to win a bet or prove a point. Huge buildings were built that appeared as lighthouses, homes or castles, but actually performed none of those functions. Some buildings were meant to spy on neighbors. Another building on this list was meant to ensure that dinner was served on time. Other cultures, during times of great economic upheaval, such as the Irish Potato Famine in the 1800s, put people to work to build grand structures that could never be used in order to keep people fed and working. They built roads that led to nowhere and castles that were never used. There are other ancient structures that today’s archaeologists cannot fathom what they were built for. In the modern world we’ve all seen the tourist traps on every road side, but at least these were built to draw in tourists, so these are not examined here. This article selects those buildings, many overly extravagant, built for the dumbest reasons, reasons with little value other than personal, or for no reason at all.
10. The Tholos Of Athena Pronaia At Delphi, Greece
Hollywood has painted a vivid image of Delphi. It’s where dedicated priestesses told kings and queens about the future of their throne, and their successes in battle. Who can forget the seductive rituals of these priestesses in movies like 300? This was the most sacred of all religious sites in Ancient Greece. The central structure that still remains at this site is called the Tholos of Athena. It was built in the 4th Century BC. Scholars however, have little clue as to what this building was used for. It’s ironic that in such an important site, we have nothing left to show us where these rituals took place, except for a round building that was used for nothing. This was an extravagant multi-colored building built out of two types of marble and blue limestone, with an extravagant roof decorated with women in a dance-like pose.
9. Broadway Tower, Worchestershire, England
The tower was built in England in 1799. Sponsored and paid for by Lady Coventry, this building was constructed out of sheer curiosity. The tower is located on Broadway Hill, some 312 meters (1024 feet) above sea level. Lady Coventry, who lived 22 miles away, was wondering if a beacon from this hill could be seen from her house. So with some spare change, she decided to construct this 55 foot tall tower to find out. You may be wondering if her experiment worked. Indeed, the beacon could be seen clearly. This probably should come as no surprise. The cost of the tower is not documented anywhere. It was later put to good use as a printing press, a vacation home and even monitored nuclear fallout a few decades ago. Imagine spending all that money to see what amounts to a light and then never use that information again
8. Conolly’s Folly, County Kildare, Ireland
It’s hard to describe what this structure actually is. Unlike some other structures designed to show off wealth, this structure was actually built to help the poor. It was built at the height of the Irish Potato Famine of 1740-1741, by philanthropist Katherine Conolly, the wife of a prominent speaker (William Conolly). Instead of allowing farmers to starve, Katherine employed them to built this structure. This single structure allowed hundreds of poor people to be fed during what was an abhorrent time. What is interesting to note is that the design is useless. It can’t serve as a gate, and it can’t serve as a house. It does however, have architectural elements that are unique. The arches and obelisks are engraved with stone eagles and of all things, pineapples. The main tower reaches a height of 140 feet. Presently this structure is part of the Irish Georgian Society, which overseas Ireland’s historical monuments. Interestingly, the house that Katherine Conolly lived in was slated for demolition in 1960, but was preserved by Desmond Guinness.
7. Ashton Memorial, Lancaster, England
From an initial glance, this building looks like an elaborate church. It’s a church design found in many different places. However, it is simply a monument to a British industrialist’s widow. Lord Ashton built this structure between 1907 and 1909, in honor of his second wife. It cost the equivalent of $7.4 million in today’s currency. A steep price for a memorial. This building is 150 feet tall, and as such is the tallest structure in Lancaster. As with most structures, it does actually serve a purpose in present times as a banquet hall, concert theater and for private functions. The dome is made of copper, and there are even more tributes found in the building other than for Lord Ashton’s widow. Sculptures representing Commerce, Science, Industry and Art can be found on the exterior of the dome. The interior of the dome has paintings representing Commerce, Art and History.
6. Bettison’s Folly, Hornsea England
Not the most beautiful building on this list, but it is its purpose that makes it worthy of mention. William Bettison, the man who built this, needed a way to ensure that his dinner was served on time. Back then communication was by sight. So, as Mr. Bettison walked back from his brewery, he could count on his servant to see him from the tower, run down the stairs of the tower and serve dinner on time. The exact date of construction is not known, but it is sometime between 1829 and 1853. The building served a more useful purpose during World War II as an air raid lookout point and siren. The nearby city of Hull was the second most bombed site in Great Britain during World War II. In 2011, for what has to be one of the biggest bargains in town, this building was bought for £1 by David Foster and Mick Bateman, owners of a local construction company. They bought the 55 foot tower from Patti Henderson who purchased the tower in 2003, helped restore it and was looking for someone to help it become a heritage site.
5. Sham Castle, Bath England
Just as the name suggests, this building was intended to look like a Castle. It was funded by Ralph Allen, local entrepreneur and local Post Master. It was erected in 1762. Ralph needed something to improve the view from his townhouse, so he built this castle. Remember that at the time it was trendy to build structures like this just to compete with neighbors. Viewing the castle from the back gives away the fact that this is a folly. When viewed from the front, it had the appearance of an actual castle. At the time this was built, Ralph had just purchased nearby quarries, thus providing him with the bath limestone used to build this extravagant monument.
4. Sway Tower, Hampshire England
Another building constructed to prove a point. Built between 1879-1885, the record it broke then, still stands now. At some 200 ft tall, it is the tallest building in the world (not reinforced with iron). Only the windows have iron supports. Why was it built? The brainchild behind this tower was Andrew Thomas Turton Peterson. He made his wealth as a judge in India. Upon retiring in England, he decided to erect a monument on his property to prove that concrete alone could be used to build a tall building. The monument is 13 stories high with 400 steps to the top of the building. Andrew not only had the money to build this tall tower, but he also built a prototype about 50 ft tall, a few hundred meters from this Tower. Stories of ghosts inspiring its design are part of the folklore, as is the fact that Andrew Peterson is supposedly buried at the top of the tower. To this day, the building is privately owned and still used for nothing.
3. Wainhouse Tower, West Yorkshire, England
How about a building designed to intrude upon your neighbors? This is it. Built between 1871 and 1875 by John Edward Wainhouse, it served two purposes. The first was to settle a long standing dispute with a neighbor, Sir Henry Edwards. Edwards had boasted that his estate was the most private in Halifax. With the construction of this Tower, Edwards could no longer boast about this. However this folly had a second, actually useful purpose for construction, which never came to fruition. John Edward Wainhouse owned a dye works factory. He had to build a tall chimney to satisfy the smoke abatement act of 1870 which required tall chimneys to dissipate smoke into the air away from developments. However John wanted a chimney that was also beautiful. His factory was sold before the chimney was finished. The new owner of the factory did not want to finish the construction of the chimney. So John kept the tower, fired his current architect and finished the chimney himself. Obviously upon completion the tower was no longer a chimney, but used as an observation deck. The tower cost £14,000 to build. In today’s currency that is £1,442,857 for a building that at the end of the day, only served to look into his neighbor’s yard.
2. Rushton Triangular Lodge, Rushton England
So far this list is comprised of structures built for vanity, some built for charity and some built for love. They all had one thing in common; they served no practical purpose. This one is different because it was built out of protest. It was built between 1593 and 1597, by Sir Thomas Tresham. Tresham, a Catholic, was imprisoned for not becoming a protestant. His sentence lasted 15 years. Upon his release in 1593, he built his ultimate act of defiance. A building that proclaimed his Catholic Faith in many forms. One of the pillars of the Catholic Faith is the concept of the Holy Trinity (or the number 3). Hence why this building has the number 3 everywhere. It is 33 feet long, and has 3 floors and 3 windows (triangular no less). Each window contains 3 gargoyles. Even the chimney is triangular. In a clever twist ,Thomas even engraved 3 latin verses, each 33 letters long along each facade of the building. The main room on each floor is hexagonal. How does this translate into the number 3? This leaves the 3 corner spaces as triangles. The striped pattern is created by using alternate forms of dark and light limestone. Tresham never built another structure before he died eight years later. He also never used the building, so it was theoretically built for nothing. One wonders where he found the money to build this after leaving prison. But he did. It’s also interesting how much thought he put into the little details.
1. Ballandean Pyramid, Queensland, Australia
At first glance, one might think that this is an ancient pyramid, especially by looking at the materials and construction techniques. It is not. This is the most modern, and cheapest folly on the list. But it was built for the weirdest reason. It was essentially built because the owner of the land had nowhere to put his trash after excavating his land. The base of the pyramid is 100 ft wide and 50 ft high. It was built on what is currently a vineyard, after Peter Watters (a local resident) asked the owner of the land what he was going to do with all of the granite rocks excavated from the land. So the land owner as a joke decided to build a pyramid. The pyramid took 8 months to build using an excavator and dump truck. The pyramid can only be seen from afar, but it’s only 25 m from the nearest road. No one can climb the pyramid.