Pennsylvania Historic Preservation

Blog of the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Office

This image shows a two-story brick house with mansard roof.
This image shows a two-story brick house with mansard roof.

The Second Empire Strikes Back

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Perhaps no architectural style has been more cruelly reinterpreted in the modern era than the classy and distinctive French Second Empire style (also called the Mansard style).

With its iconic curved and slate shingled faux roof attic level, the Second Empire style was enormously popular all across the country in the late Victorian era.   Often chosen for impressive mansions or public buildings, the style was also employed more modestly for late 19th century row houses.  It is easily identified by its most distinct design feature – a dual-pitched hipped roof structure, often with small dormer windows on the roof slopes and elaborate cornices.  In many instances, roof slates of different shapes and colors were used to further ornament the four (or more) roof slopes.

Photograph of two-story brick Second Empire house with mansard roof and central tower.

Second Empire house on Water Street in Loch Haven.

The history of the mansard roof itself is fascinating.  It takes its name from influential French architect Francois Mansart (1598–1666), who employed it extensively in the beautiful buildings he designed in 17th century France.  At that time the use of mansard roofs allowed property owners to avoid paying Paris city taxes on the top floor of their buildings, because taxes were assessed on all floors below the roofline.

Large stone mansion with Mansard roof in France.

Château de Maisons-Laffitte in Maisons-Laffitte built by François Mansart. By Galichonj (?) [GPL (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The mansard roof again gained great popularity in France during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III from 1848 to 1870.  Napoleon III commissioned Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann to develop a master plan to redesign Paris with wide boulevards, parks and gardens replacing its narrow medieval streets.  Napoleon III demanded that all buildings lining the newly created boulevards be of matching height and appearance with mansard roofs.  Thus, the mansard roof became the architectural signature of mid-19th century Paris and is called the French Second Empire style in deference to Napoleon III, the emperor of France’s second empire.

Second Empire buildings in West Philadelphia. Note the fish scale shingles, rounded dormers, and heavy wood cornices.

As the architectural style spread from France to England, Europe, and the United States, it was embraced as part of the “picturesque” movement in American architecture, which emphasized the creation of buildings inspired by the romanticized past and designed to complement the beauty of their natural environment. The Italianate and Gothic Revival styles are most closely identified with the picturesque movement since their basic forms and decorative details came from an idealized version of the past.  However, the Second Empire style, modeled on buildings then popular in mid to late 19th century France, was clearly part of the picturesque movement as well.  British-American architect and landscape designer Calvert Vaux included examples of the Second Empire style in Villas and Cottages, his 1857 pattern book for picturesque houses.

Black and white drawing showing a large Second Empire home.

Vaux’s design No. 38 is a classic example of the Second Empire style for domestic buildings.

American enthusiasm for the style grew with the construction of two impressive public buildings, Charity Hospital (1858) in New York City and the Corcoran Art Gallery (1859) in Washington, DC, both designed by outstanding American architect James Renwick Jr.  Renwick is best known as the designer of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, a masterpiece of Gothic Revival style completed in 1879.

The Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, located at 1661 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW in Washington, D.C. By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Pennsylvania’s most opulent example of the style might be the Philadelphia City Hall, designed by John McArthur and constructed over a thirty year period from 1871 to 1901.  Threatened with demolition in the 1950s, it continues to dazzle the eye and define downtown Philadelphia.  It has even been attributed with mystical power via the “curse of Billy Penn,” the statue designed by Alexander Milne Calder atop it.

Picture showing large stone public building with tall tower, with a statue of William Penn at the top.

Philadelphia’s City Hall. By Antoine Taveneaux (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Local legend attributed the losing record of Philadelphia’s professional sports teams after 1987 to the construction of two nearby office towers to a height taller than the top of the William Penn statue, ending City Hall’s century long reign as the tallest building in center city.  Supposedly, the curse was undone with the installation of a small Penn statue on the roof of the newly constructed Comcast Center in 2007, then the tallest building in downtown Philadelphia.   The grandeur of City Hall was enhanced in 2014 by the redesign of Dilworth Park, updating the 1972 plaza located on the area designated by William Penn himself as the Centre Square at the heart of the city.

While hundreds other well-preserved examples of this picturesque style remain throughout the commonwealth, some Second Empire style buildings have not been so kindly treated in the intervening years.   Remuddling (which is the term for inappropriate remodeling which removes or covers a building’s character giving architectural features) occurs often with all styles over time, but the mansard roof has been a too frequent target.

The original mansard roof on this house has also been covered with aluminum siding.

What has really puzzled some architectural historians is the development of supersize mansard roofs on both old and more recent buildings. Neo-Mansard has been suggested as a style moniker for late 20th century buildings with bold mansard roofs but none of the other design features of the Second Empire style.  Sometimes those creative efforts to rethink this well-known building feature work well and other times the results seem a bit over the top.

Photograph shows a one-story brick building with heavy metal mansard roof.

Mid-20th century Neo-Mansard commercial design in Camp Hill.

 

Photograph shows three-story brick rowhouses with shallow mansard roof.

21st century new Second Empire Style rowhouses in South Philadelphia.

As all those who appreciate architecture know, beauty is often in the eye of the beholder and what seems a bit much to some, might delight other less compartmentalized thinkers or architectural history buffs.

There are so many great mansard roofs throughout Pennsylvania.  Share yours with us in the comments section of this post or email us at mail@pahistoricpreservation.com!

Author: Pamela Reilly

Pamela Reilly is a Historic Preservation Specialist in the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Office in Harrisburg. She holds a BA in Art and Sociology from Bucknell University and a MA in Historic Preservation from George Washington University. Pamela is an architectural historian who admits to being a bit of a pushover for buildings with a pretty facade. She also has a special interest in vernacular architecture.

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