The term Second Empire refers to the period in France from 1852-1870 when Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon I, reestablished imperial rule by a coup d’etat, thereby ending the Second Republic of 1848-1852. In an ambitious building campaign, Napoleon III appointed Baron Haussmann to oversee a vast program of work including modernization, improvements to living conditions in the revolution-breeding slums through demolition and rebuilding, and turning Paris into an imperial capital replete with magnificent buildings housing new institutions.
Haussmann created grand boulevards lined with trees and classical facades, all connected by ronds-points and interspersed with new parks such as the Bois de Boulogne. And throughout Paris sumptuous new buildings were erected, the finest being the Opéra by Charles Garnier.
Using classical forms popular during the reigns of Louis XIV and Napoleon I, Napoleon III and his architects visually evoked memories of those successful regimes, giving a sense of permanency to the new institutions and, by association, to the Second Empire itself. One building element used widely during this period, the Mansard roof, would come to define the Second Empire style in America. François Mansart was French architect during the 17th century who revived these steeply pitched roofs from their earlier use during the French Renaissance. Though not invented by him, this roof type was so associated with Mansart it came to be called un toit à la mansarde, or Mansard roof. It is a hipped roof with two pitches on each side, the first rising up steeply from the eave, straight, convex, concave, or bell shaped; and the second being nearly flat sloping upwards to the ridge. It was a practical roof form, generously accommodating living space in the attic and making it easy to expand older buildings by nearly a whole floor.
Popularized in the Paris Exposition of 1855, the Second Empire style quickly began to appear elsewhere. In America, it was viewed as a “modern” style different from the romantic revival styles of the Gothic Revival and Italianate. Predominating in the Midwest and the Northeast, but found throughout the country, it was wildly popular from 1860 through 1880 for both domestic and civic architecture.
It is characterized by a boxy mass, either symmetrical or not; square towers placed centrally along the main façade or asymmetrically in more complex massing schemes; a steep Mansard roof commonly elaborated with decorative colored tiles, cast iron filigree-like cresting and dormers; and segmental or round arched windows with decorative hoods.
It is similar in massing to the Italianate style, and can be seen as an evolution of the Italianate. In fact, many Americans simply updated their Italianate style houses with new Mansard roofs to keep up with fashion. Like most of the eclectic styles running rampant in the second half of the 19th century, the Second Empire style was popularized in pattern books. With its opulence and fashion-forwardness, the Second Empire style suitably reflected the early heady years of the Gilded Age. Books related to America’s traditional domestic architecture and classical architecture may be found at my online bookshop.
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