Illustrated Architecture Dictionary
.................................. Styles of Architecture

Second Empire Style


The American Second Empire style was borrowed from France. It is named for the reign of Napoleon III (1852-70), who undertook a major building campaign that transformed Paris into a city of grand boulevards and monumental buildings that were copied throughout Europe and the New World. One of Napoleon's most famous projects was the enlargement of the Louvre (1852-57), which brought back to popularity a roof form developed by 17th-century French Renaissance architect Francois Mansart.

The prototype for Second Empire style is the Opera Garnier, Paris, designed by Charles Garnier in Baroque Revival (Neo-Baroque) style. (See Grand Théâtre, in Geneva, Switzerland, an imitation of the Opera Garnier.)

The mansard roof - a double-pitched roof with a steep lower slope - was a hallmark of the Second Empire style. By increasing head room in the attic space, it provided an additional usable floor. To provide light on this floor, the mansard roof was almost always pierced with dormers.

Domestic architecture in the Second Empire style is more difficult to characterize because the mansard roof could be placed on almost any house to create a contemporary look without requiring innovations in plan or ornament. The interiors were generally elaborations of the Italianate style, with bold plaster cornices and medallions and marble fireplaces with arched openings.

Second Empire 1860-1890

The Second Empire style house is an imposing two or three-story symmetrical square block with a projecting central pavilion often extending above the rest of the house.

The distinguishing feature is the mansard roof covered with multi-colored slates or tinplates.

Classical moldings and details such as quoins, cornices, and belt course have great depth and are dramatized by different textures and colored materials.

Windows are arched and pedimented, sometimes in pairs with molded surrounds. First floor windows are usually very tall.

Entrance doors often are arched double doors with glass upper panels.

- Identifying American Architecture, by John J.-G Blumenson. New York: Norton. 1981, p. 53

5.1.4 Second Empire

Deriving its name from the French Second Empire, this Romantic architectural style is named in honor of the reign of Napoleon III (1852-70), who undertook a significant building crusade that transformed Paris into a city of grand scenic boulevards and grand monumental buildings that were copied throughout Europe and the New World.

Common features of the Second Empire style include Classical and Italianate-derived moldings and details such as quoins, cornices, and belt course which are articulated with great depth and emphasized with the use of a variety of textures and colorful materials. Windows were typically tall and narrow, with arched and sometimes pedimented forms, sometimes grouped in pairs with shared molded surrounds.

The massing of the style was typically square or rectilinear, sometimes featured a tower element or a cupola or lantern, and was occasionally joined to form continuous groups of town houses.

The signature feature of the Second Empire style is the use of a Mansard roof:  a dual pitched hipped roof with a steep lower slope. This Mansard roof allowed for additional living space beneath the roof, and was typically punctured with elaborate dormer windows to allow for interior illumination.
- Clinton Brown Company Architecture/Rebuild: High & Locust Streets Historic District Nomination, Sec 5, pp. 6-7

Mansard roofs

The emblem of the [Second Empire] style is the distinctive mansard roof, a device attributed to the 17th-century French architect Francois Mansart (1598-1666). Mansart is remembered by architectural historians as the Father of French Classical Architecture, but he clearly had a practical nature as well.

The point of Mansart's dual-pitched roof was to squeeze a full floor of living space above the cornice line of a building without increasing the technical number of stories in the structure - an economically appealing bit of architectural legerdemain in a city like Paris where upward mobility, at least in buildings,was restricted or heavily taxed.

The top of a mansard roof is generally broad and flattish in order to maximize the volume of space beneath it - think of a hipped roof with its top surface spreading almost to the edges of the building.

The lower pitch may be convex (outwardly curving, possibly in an S or bell shape), concave (inwardly curved or flaring), or steeply angled.

Sometimes the mansard roof is two stories high. Whatever the exact shape of the roof, there are always numerous dormer windows to light the living space within.

Second Empire features and mansard roofs are so often found together that the style itself is frequently referred to as the Mansard Style. While it is true that every Second Empire house has at least one mansard roof (and some have many), does the presence of a mansard roof always signify a Second-Empire house?

In a word, no. In Second Empire buildings, the mansard roof must be the dominant feature, not a subsidiary one. You might, for example, have a Queen Anne house with a gabled main roof and a mansard-roofed tower. Such a house is still a Queen Anne, not a Second Empire.

- James C. Massey and Shirley Maxwell, "The Mania for Mansards." Pub. in the January/February issue of the Old House Journal, p. 64. ONLINE

Second Empire Architecture Features:

Scroll(ed) buttresses evolved in the early 17th century Baroque style. See also an example of the 19th century Second Empire style which is the French version of Baroque Revival.


Second Empire furniture-makers continued to draw on historic French styles, resulting in revivals. These included Gothic, Renaissance, Louis XIV/Baroque, Louis XV/Rococo, and Louis XVI/Neoclassicism. (See French Furniture.)

The dark woods of previous periods were used, especially mahogany and ebony along with new materials such as papier-mâché, cast iron, mother of pearl and ivory inlay, gilt bronze and wood carved to imitate bamboo (faux bamboo).

Interior designers worked as a a team with upholsterers and designed heavy curtains and hangings loaded with braids and trimmings which graced ladies' boudoirs and bedrooms.

Text sources:

Examples of Second Empire Style in Buffalo:

Photos and their arrangement © 2002 Chuck LaChiusa
| ...Home Page ...| ..Buffalo Architecture Index...| ..Buffalo History Index... .|....E-Mail ...| ..

web site consulting by ingenious, inc.