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Second Empire/Mansard Style (1855-1885)

CEO Khai Intela
As the name implies, the Second Empire style, also known as French Second Empire, Napoleon III style, or mansard style, can be traced back to the reign of Napoleon III in France from 1852 to...

As the name implies, the Second Empire style, also known as French Second Empire, Napoleon III style, or mansard style, can be traced back to the reign of Napoleon III in France from 1852 to 1870. During this time, Paris underwent a significant reconstruction that involved the replacement of medieval alleys and structures with wide avenues and monumental buildings. The influence of this architectural style spread throughout Europe and the United States, shaping building design during the mid-19th century.

Character and Permanence in Public Architecture

One of the defining characteristics of the mansard style is its ability to exude character and a sense of permanence in public architecture. Residences designed in this style were typically large and built for affluent homeowners. The appearance of these homes can be compared to an elaborate wedding cake. The Second Empire style's popularity in the United States, particularly between 1855 and 1885, resulted in a remodeling boom where mansard roofs were incorporated into previously pitched-roof residences.

The popularity of the Second Empire style was most prominent in affluent parts of the Northeast and Midwest, less common on the Pacific coast, and rare in the South. However, its popularity quickly declined following the economic depression of 1873. The Second Empire style in America embraced a philosophy of free adaptation, allowing for a mix-and-match mentality when it came to architectural elements from the past.

Unique Features of the Second Empire Style

Although the mansard roof is a constant feature in Second Empire architecture, there are several other shared characteristics with Victorian-era styles. For example, similarities can be found between Second Empire and Italianate architecture in their use of overhanging eaves with decorative brackets and ornate door and window hoods.

Examples of the Second Empire Style

Two notable examples of Second Empire buildings can be found in Washington, DC, directly across from each other. The Renwick Gallery, designed by architect James Renwick in 1859, is located at the northeast corner of 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. It was the first significant building in the United States to showcase the Second Empire style. Another remarkable example is the Old Executive Office Building, known for its rich embellishment and designed by architect Alfred B. Mullet. This building stands as one of the grandest examples of the Second Empire style in the nation.

Mansard Roof The distinct mansard roof, a hallmark of the Second Empire style.

Ornamentation and Symmetry

Second Empire architecture embraces inspiration and unstinting ornamentation, creating a monumental and ornate effect that reflects its Napoleonic roots. The residences often have a simple box form and are highly symmetrical. In Washington, DC, examples include Cooke's Row on Q Street NW in Georgetown and the Visitation School on 35th Street NW. An asymmetrical form of Second Empire architecture also exists, featuring homes laid out in an L shape with two wings or built as a single block with a prominently projecting bay that draws attention to the entrance where the wings meet.

Square or rectangular towers are another common feature in Second Empire architecture. These visually compelling towered houses are often depicted in Halloween illustrations and horror films, such as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and the Addams Family TV series.

Roofing, Materials, and Windows

Second Empire roofs are predominantly made of slate shingles, and in some cases, the slate features decorative patterns. The primary building materials include wood and brick. Brick buildings may incorporate cut stone embellishments for added ornateness. Clapboard buildings, on the other hand, utilize wood quoins at the corners to create a more elaborate appearance.

Main feature windows in Second Empire architecture are usually arranged in pairs and often placed over the entrance. Elaborate public buildings may have windows flanked by columns or pilasters. Wood clapboard homes feature elaborate window hoods supported by brackets and multiple layers of wood trim, often with incised patterns. Whimsical eyebrow shapes placed over windows, doors, and dormers are also common. Brick Second Empire homes are simpler than wood structures due to the higher cost associated with brick and stonework. Bay windows frequently serve as architectural elements, providing space for abundant ornamentation.

Entrances and Interior Design

Second Empire homes place a strong emphasis on the entrance. The entrance is typically highlighted by a central projecting pavilion or an elaborate canopy. The front porch is often elevated above ground level by several steps, and the entryway may feature a double or extra-wide single door.

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Preserving and Enhancing Second Empire Homes

If you are the proud owner of a Second Empire home that has fallen into disrepair over the years, you can restore its original luster with the help of Wentworth. With years of experience remodeling period homes in the DC metro area, the Wentworth team can guide your project, whether you want to update a single room or completely renovate the interior. They also offer Second Empire home additions, interior reconfigurations, custom detailing, interior design services, and facade enhancements to ensure your Second Empire home retains its beauty and charm.

If you are considering a Second Empire home renovation project, don't hesitate to get in touch with Wentworth and request a consultation today!

Frequently Asked Questions

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