Understanding Second Empire Architecture

By: Kevin Bilberry

Some of the 19th century's most imposing, majestic homes and public buildings were built in the Second Empire style. Based on French design elements popular during the Second French Empire, this building form was popular throughout the European sphere of influence and the United States during the mid to late 19th century, and is often considered the first prominent Victorian building style. Unlike other popular 19th century architectural forms, Second Empire was largely the product of new and emerging styles, rather than classic styles like Gothic and Regency. Second Empire architecture is also closely related to the Italianate building style, which also came into prominence during the mid-19th century.

Several design elements set the Second Empire style apart from other building forms. Most notably, the style is known for its widespread use of Mansard roofing, which produced the style's famously imposing stature. Mansard roofs are hipped and double sloped, with a nearly vertical lower slope, and a much flatter upper slope that isn't usually visible from ground level. The four-sided, double sloped approach made these roofs extremely functional as well as attractive, and allowed for large three story floor plans. Often a house with a small ground floor footprint could have the same volume as a tall apartment building or row house using a Mansard roof. The stylish look of these roofs was often enhanced with molded cornices aligned with windows and doors on lower floors. Many Mansard roofs also included a third slope along the bottom edge acting as an overhang, and a rounded main slope to give the roof a domed look.

Another common feature of the Second Empire architecture was a tower, or tower-like element, usually at the front and center of a building. This feature is instantly recognizable in many Second Empire city hall and parliament buildings, and often resembles a bell tower. With a large tower to offset the profile of buildings, the Second Empire style could often be employed to produce much larger structures - this meant the style was doubly useful in sizing applications, as it allowed small footprints to be used to their maximum potential, and large footprints to become more stylish and less monolithic. Prior to the construction of the Pentagon in the 1940s some of the world's largest roofs were built in the Second Empire style, including that of the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, and the Ohio State Asylum for the Insane. Both of these institutions were built according to the Kirkbride Plan for mental asylums, which helped shape the Second Empire style in dozens of imposing, steep roofed health care facilities built throughout the late 19th century.

The practicality of Second Empire architecture was often overshadowed by its abundant ornamentation. Extensive custom molding on the exterior of these buildings was often matched by intricate detailing on the interior walls, often accented by high sculpted pillars and wide winding staircases. Beautiful ornamentation helped make the Second Empire style popular, but also may have helped push it into obscurity, as plainer building styles became more popular during the early 20th century.

Real Estate
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 

» More on Real Estate
 



Share this article :
Click to see more related articles