Sunday, July 22, 2012

More than a mansard roof: The Second Empire style

The Second Empire revival was a very popular style of European origin and is my favorite style to work on. The mansard roofs, tall floors and heavy moldings of the style came to epitomize nineteenth century Americana. Like other styles borrowed from Europe, American builders and architects transformed it into something distinctly different from its cousins across the pond. The slated mansard, flat roofs, built-in gutters, and ornate cornices cannot be preserved and restored by the average roofer; one must possess extensive slate roofing, copper sheet metal, and carpentry skills. And the plan must be sensitive to the aesthetic to the style and with "in kind" materials.

Second Empire is an architectural style, most popular between 1865 and 1880, and so named for the "French" elements in vogue during the era of the Second French Empire. In a significant variation it is sometimes called the Napoleon III style. While a distinct style unto itself, some Second Empire styling cues, such as quoins, have an indirect relationship to the styles previously in vogue, Gothic Revival and Italianate eras. This style originated in Paris during the late 19th century. The second emperor, Louis-Napoleon, is not remembered for military prowess, but for the rebuilding of Paris into the City of Light--an impressive modern capital with grand boulevards lined by public monuments and town houses, all with mansard roofs. The nearly vertical roof form had been advanced in the seventeenth century by architect Francois Mansart and was embraced by the emperor's stylish consort, Eugenie.
In the United States, the Second Empire style usually combined a rectangular tower, or similar element, with a steep, but short, mansard roof; the roof being the quintessential defining characteristic of the style. This tower element could be of equal height as the highest floor, or could exceed the height of the rest of the structure by a story or two. The mansard roof crest was often topped with an iron trim, sometimes referred to as "cresting". In some cases, lightning rods were integrated into the cresting design, making the feature useful beyond its decorative features. Although still intact in some examples, often this original cresting has deteriorated and been removed. The exterior style could be expressed in either wood, brick or stone. More elaborate examples frequently featured paired columns as well as sculpted details around the doors, windows and dormers. The purpose of the ornamentation was to make the structure appear imposing, grand and expensive.

Floor plans for Second Empire residences could either be symmetrical, with the tower (or tower-like element) in the center, or asymmetrical, with the tower or tower-like element to one side. The style can be divided into five subtypes:

  • Simple mansard roof – about 20%
  • Centered wing or gable (with bays jutting out at either end)
  • Asymmetrical – about 20%
  • Central tower (incorporating a clock) – about 30%
  • Town house
The architect H.H. Richardson designed several of his early residences in the style, perhaps evidence of his French schooling. These projects include the Crowninshield House, in Boston Massachusetts, 1868, the H.H. Richardson House, on Staten Island, New York, 1868 and the William Dorsheimer House, in Buffalo, New York, 1868. In American Architecture, Leland M. Roth refers to the style as "Second Empire Baroque." Mullett-Smith terms it the "Second Empire or General Grant style" due to its popularity in building government buildings during the Grant administration.

The style was also used for commercial structures, and was often used when designing state institutions. Several psychiatric hospitals proved the style's adaptability to their size and functions. Prior to the construction of The Pentagon during the 1940s, the Second Empire-style Ohio State Asylum for the Insane in Columbus, Ohio was reported to be the largest building under one roof in the U.S., though the title may actually belong to Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, another Kirkbride Second Empire asylum. Second Empire was succeeded by the revival of the Queen Anne Styleand its sub-styles, which enjoyed great popularity until the beginning of the "Revival Era" in American architecture just before the end of the 19th century.
When focusing on the envelope of a structure, I believe that the use of traditional materials is at the core of sustainable design in historic preservation. That's why I founded the Traditional Roofing Network and went back to school for a M.Sc. in historic preservation at UMass-Amherst. I provide competent, thorough and appropriate direction and services to my clients. Guided by the Secretary of the Interior's standards for the rehabilitation of historic structures, we find that the use of traditional materials provides the foundation for preservation planning and building conservation. Working with historic homeowners and the stewards of landmark structures, I am committed to preserving the heritage of the region’s built environment. Whether its replacing the flashings on an historic slate roof, rebuilding copper-lined built-in gutters, or repointing the fa├žade of a 150 year old stone structure, I deliver quality and value to my clients.

There are very few firms in the northeast (New York and New England) with extensive expertise and a proven track record of correctly restoring Second Empire homes. From conditions assessment and project specification, to the execution of all phases of the restoration plan, all work and oversight is in-house. Contact us todayto discuss the preservation of your Second Empire home.




  1. Indeed! Traditional materials surprisingly have more sustainable designs in architectural preservations. For instance, the roofs made in the earlier years have sturdier and thicker shingles than most of the new ones. The iron supports were more distinguished in form and are still being used in most buildings. Also, the structures then had very fine details that symbolize the influence of the dominant culture at that time.

    Lue Madson

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