Second Empire in the 21st Century

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The thing that fascinates me most about Second Empire style (most identifiable by those mansard roofs) is how quickly it went from huge popularity to disfavor in the United States. Second Empire, which drew from contemporaneous French building fashions, was the dominant residential style in the United States 1860-1880. It was also used in a variety of public buildings and schools. In fact, it was used for so many public buildings during the Grand administration that it has been jokingly referred to as the General Grant style.

Second Empire style fell from fashion almost as quickly as it appeared. Despite the useful qualities of a livable attic space, Second Empire seems almost allusive today, particularly on the West Coast. You can catch examples, however, in places like schools (which generally don’t have the funds to stay on-trend, a characteristic that saved some Second Empire buildings when many were being torn down).

University of Nevada, Reno, (UNR) has a beautiful example of Second Empire style in Morrill Hall. Morrill Hall, constructed in 1885, was the first building built at UNR’s current location in northern Reno. When first built, the stately brick building housed the entire university. Today it serves as space for the alumni office and university press. It stands tall at the south end of the quad, surrounded by the campus’s oldest trees, each year watching new students navigate to their classes and seniors graduate on the stretch of lawn behind the back porch.

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Sources an Further Reading:

See the UNR site about Morrill Hall, here. You can also read more about Morrill Hall from NPS and Reno Historical (the latter has some great historic photos of the building).

I turned to my bookshelf for this one and referenced the trusty McAlester. See: A Field Guide to American Houses.

Washington’s Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation has a page about Second Empire style with an emphasis on the Pacific Northwest. Check that out here.

One of my early blogs was about the mansard roof and Second Empire style. My blog has changed a lot since then, but my opinions haven’t! Check it out: What Do The Louvre and Fast Food Have in Common? (That Burger King, on Market Street in Ballard, has since been demolished.)

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14 thoughts on “Second Empire in the 21st Century

  1. Not being American but interested in architecture … I was interested to read this. I had a vague niggling memory of this style and did the google image search. The Addam’s Family house! Would you call that a Empire Style Style? If not is that at least a mansard style roof? Louise in Melbourne

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    1. Good eye, Louise! I love it! I had to do a little googling too but it is definitely Second Empire–particularly the 1991 incarnation. For some reason, the typical haunted house tends to be from the Victorian era (in particular Second Empire). Maybe because they were so grand and popular but at a certain point many became deteriorated and abandoned. Such an interesting history!

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  2. Susie, thanks so much for the source list and links — you are contributing to my informal education in architecture! I was particularly interested in the Washington State DAHP page about Second Empire architecture. I can’t think that I have ever seen one of these (aside from Burger King???) and my conclusion would be that Second Empire became too much associated with Europe and too ornate, for the tastes of Pacific Northwest American architecture. I was surprised at the DAHP description that a Mansard roof is “functional” because it adds space on the upper floors; the appearance of it just says “difficult to maintain” to me, under the constant onslaught of rain, plus the lack of eaves/overhang to protect buildings from rain.

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    1. I can’t agree with you more on the functionality! The rain in particular makes these roofs not suited for the PNW. Mansard roofs even aside from Second Empire (Burger King can borrow the roof but will never actually be Second Empire) are definitely not common in Seattle. There’s a 1980’s era house with a mansard roof on 32nd St in Ballard. There’s a beautiful one in Coupeville, the Watson House (1886). But those are the only ones I ever spotted in the greater Seattle area. It would be hard to know how many were built but later torn down as trends changed (maybe there were some in Queen Anne?). There was a strong anti-Second Empire sentiment for many years. However, there likely weren’t many in the PNW to begin with.

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      1. It seems that preferences do become embedded in culture, beyond the functionality of a roof style. In Wedgwood there is almost violent preference for pitch and gables, plus shingle siding. People are struggling with the new vertical forms of houses, two-story with HardiBoard instead of a traditional one-story gabled house with wood siding.

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      2. Second Empire does seem like a rare style in Seattle, which hung on to the Italianate style after it was fashionable then transitioned straight into Queen Anne and “Victorian” styles. The only large Second Empire I know of in Seattle was the long-demolished Stacy Mansion, and even it was not a prototypical Second Empire, having only a short, half-story mansard roof.

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  3. What other things about this house mark it as Second Empire? Because I know a couple other mansard-roofed older buildings in my stomping grounds and I’d like to know whether they are Second Empire.

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    1. Good question! The mansard roof with dormer windows is key. Other identifying features:

      – molded cornices
      – decorative brackets under the eaves
      – unelaborated, arched windows
      – patterns in roofing materials
      – about 30% have a rectangular or square tower

      They can be a bit reminiscent of Italianate (brackets, towers), but Italianate houses have hip/gable roofs and often have much deeper eaves. Let me know if you find some cool examples!

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