Second Empire Style

By Scott Sidler • October 21, 2019

second empire style housePopular from about 1860-1880 in America the Second Empire architectural style with it’s distinctive mansard roof has its roots in France during the reign of Napoleon III (1852-1870), France’s Second Empire from which the style aptly takes it’s name.

Considered quite modern in its time, especially when compared to contemporaneous architectural styles of the time like Italianate and Gothic Revival, the Second Empire style was not only trend setting but practical. Its trademark mansard roof, named for the 17th-century French architect Francois Mansart, gave this style its most defining characteristic as well as full sized rooms on the upper floor.

For me the Second Empire style has always been associated with haunted houses. Maybe that’s because of its association with shows like The Munsters and The Adams Family. Or maybe there is something special about this style that just gives off an eerie vibe. You can be the judge of that.

Defining Characteristics

There are many architectural specialties that make the Second Empire unique and we’ll cove those specific to the style below.

Mansard Roof

The most prominent feature of any Second Empire style house is that stunning mansard roof. A mansard roof is a hipped roof with two slopes, the lower being very steeply pitched and the upper being almost flat. There are several variations of the slope, some being straight while others being flared, concave, convex, more rarely curved S and Ogee patterns, but whatever shape they take the mansard makes the style.

In high style versions you’ll find decorative and often colorful shingles on these roofs in geometric designs.

Dormers

Rarely will you ever find a Second Empire home without dormers windows. The top floor was almost always utilized for living space and the dormers allowed lots of light into the area. Architecturally speaking, the dormers helped breakup the large expanses of roof and provide voids in the imposing massing of the mansard roof.

The dormers, as well as all the other windows on Second Empire style houses, were almost always ornately decorated with pediments or arched designs in most examples. The window designs were very similar to its kissing cousin the Italianate style which other than the mansard roof could easily be mistaken for a Second Empire building.

Cornices

If you’ve got a Second Empire style house then you have a cornice and it’s is often something spectacular. Though the eave overhangs are not as wide as on Italianate style houses the detailing or cornices is usually very ornate. With decorative eave brackets, dentils and lots of scrollwork these cornices don’t disappoint.

Towers

Not found on all Second Empires a tower is common on around 30% of examples and is a standout feature. Often the tower is centered on the house’s main entry or it can be asymmetrical on a side elevation. Often these towers are found with bay windows to set them apart further from the rest of the house.

Popularity

Hugely popular in America between 1860 and 1880 the Second Empire stye is found most commonly in the northeast and midwest parts of the country. There are a few sporadic samples in the western states and the style is extremely rare in the southern part of the country with only a handful of examples still in existence.

The style was a popular way to add an additional story to existing buildings especially in cities where space was limited because it would result in full sized rooms rather than the short ceiling in a gabled roof.

It was so popular during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) to build and remodel government buildings that it was jokingly referred to as the General Grant style.

After the panic of 1873 and following economic recession the style quickly feel from fashion and was largely replaced by the Folk Victorian and American Queen Anne styles as the most popular architectural style in America.

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5 thoughts on “Second Empire Style”

  1. It was a highly ornate motive with this style. It’s not surprising so few exist. Who could keep up with all the superfluity? Multi colored slate tile, a six, or more, palette of colors, & a stamped sheet metal cornice with a lifespan of 60 years. I remember The Lafayette Square and Soulard Neighborhoods in St. Louis has a lot of Second Empire elements, as they were built just after,”The Uneasiness Between the States.”
    Brian Manne Historic Woodwork Tampa

  2. Am I correct that the shutters on the tower window are not original? They seem to be half again as wide (in total) as the window and not quite as long.

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