Historic Second Empire Architecture in Photos

A modest Second Empire home in Cape Cod, constructed for Captain Penniman in 1868
A Modest Second Empire home in Cape Cod, Constructed for Captain Penniman in 1868. Photo © Kenneth Wiedemann / iStockPhoto
of 07

Victorian Homes in the Second Empire Style

Victorian Second Empire home in Massachusetts
Victorian Second Empire home in Massachusetts. Photo © Jim Plumb / iStockPhoto

With tall mansard roofs and wrought iron cresting, Victorian Second Empire homes create a sense of height. But, despite its regal name, a Second Empire isn't always elaborate or lofty. So, how do you recognize the style? Look for these features:

  • Mansard roof
  • Dormer windows project like eyebrows from roof
  • Rounded cornices at top and base of roof
  • Brackets beneath the eaves, balconies, and bay windows

Many Second Empire homes also have these features:

  • Cupola
  • Patterned slate on roof
  • Wrought iron cresting above upper cornice
  • Classical pediments
  • Paired columns
  • Tall windows on first story
  • Small entry porch
of 07

Second Empire and the Italianate Style

Second Empire style home in Georgia, constructed between 1875 and 1884.
Second Empire style home in Georgia, constructed between 1875 and 1884. Photo © Barbara Kraus / iStockPhoto

At first glance, you might mistake a Second Empire home for a Victorian Italianate. Both styles tend to be square in shape, and both can have U-shaped window crowns, decorative brackets, and single story porches. But, Italianate houses have much wider eaves, and they do not have the distinctive mansard roof characteristic of the Second Empire style.

The dramatic roof is the most important feature of Second Empire architecture, and has a long and interesting history.

of 07

History of the Second Empire Style

Mansard Roof at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France
Mansard Roof at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. Photo by Kristy Sparow / Getty Images News / Getty Images

The term Second Empire refers to the empire that Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) established in France during the mid-1800s. However the tall mansard roof that we associate with the style dates back to Renaissance times.

During the Renaissance in Italy and France, many buildings had steep, double-sloped roofs. An enormous sloping roof crowned the original Louvre Palace in Paris, constructed in 1546. A century later, the French architect François Mansart (1598-1666) used double-sloped roofs so extensively that they were coined mansard, a derivation of Mansart's name.

When Napoleon III ruled France (1852 to 1870), Paris became a city of grand boulevards and monumental buildings. The Louvre was enlarged, sparking a new interest in the tall, majestic mansard roof.

French architects used the term horror vacui—the fear of unadorned surfaces—to describe the highly ornamented Second Empire style. But the imposing, nearly perpendicular roofs were not merely decorative. Installing a mansard roof became a practical way to provide additional living space in the attic level.

Second Empire architecture spread to England during the Paris Exhibitions of 1852 and 1867. Before long, French fever spread to the United States.

of 07

Second Empire in the USA

Second Empire Style Philadelphia City Hall with an elaborately decorated mansard roof.
Second Empire Style Philadelphia City Hall with an elaborately decorated mansard roof. Photo by Bruce Yuanyue Bi/Lonely Planet Images Collection/Getty Images

Because it was based on a contemporary movement in Paris, Americans considered the Second Empire style more progressive than Greek Revival or Gothic Revival architecture. Builders began to construct elaborate public buildings that resembled French designs.

The first important Second Empire building in America was the Cocoran Gallery (later renamed the Renwick Gallery) in Washington, DC by James Renwick.

The tallest Second Empire building in the USA was the Philadelphia City Hall, designed by John McArthur Jr. and Thomas U. Walter. After it was completed in 1901, the soaring tower made Philadelphia's City Hall the world's tallest building. The building held top ranking for several years.

of 07

The General Grant Style

The Old Executive Office Building, now called the Dwight D. Eisenhower Building, in Washington DC.
The Old Executive Office Building, now called the Dwight D. Eisenhower Building, in Washington DC. Photo © Tom Brakefield / Getty Images

During the presidency of Ulysses Grant (1869-1877), Second Empire was a preferred style for public buildings in the United States. In fact, the style became so closely associated with the prosperous Grant administration that it is sometimes called the General Grant Style.

Constructed between 1871 and 1888, the Old Executive Office Building (later named the Dwight D. Eisenhower Building) expressed the exuberance of the era.

of 07

Second Empire Residential Architecture

Second Empire Mansard Style W. Evert House in Highland Park, Illinois (1872)
Second Empire Mansard Style W. Evert House in Highland Park, Illinois (1872). Image ©Teemu008 via flickr.com, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Second Empire style house shown here was built for W. Evert in 1872. Located in affluent Highland Park, Illinois north of Chicago, the Evert House was built by the Highland Park Building Company, a group of 19th century entrepreneurs who lured Chicagoans away from the industrial city life into a neighborhood of refinement. The Victorian Second Empire style home, well-known on opulent public buildings, was the lure.

When the Second Empire style was applied to residential architecture, builders created interesting innovations. Trendy and practical mansard roofs were placed atop otherwise modest structures. Houses in a variety of styles were given the characteristic Second Empire feature. As a result, Second Empire homes in the United States are often composites of Italianate, Gothic Revival, and other styles.

of 07

Modern Mansards

Modern-day apartment building with a mansard roof
Modern-day apartment building with a mansard roof. Photo © Onepony / iStockPhoto

A new wave of French inspired architecture made its way to the United States during the early 1900s, when soldiers returning from World War I brought an interest in styles borrowed from Normandy and Provence. These twentieth century homes had hipped roofs reminiscent of the Second Empire style. However, Normandy and Provençal homes do not have the exuberance of Second Empire architecture, nor do they evoke the sense of imposing height.

Today, the practical mansard roof is used on modern buildings like the one shown here. This towering apartment house is not, of course, Second Empire, but the steep roof is based on the regal style that took France by storm.

Sources: Buffalo Architecture; Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission; A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia Savage McAlester and Lee McAlester; American Shelter: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Home by Lester Walker; American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker; Highland Park Local and National Landmarks (PDF)

The articles you see on the pages of ThoughtCo.com are copyrighted. You may link to them, but do not copy them onto a Web page or a print publication.