The popularity of the Second Empire style in the 1860s and 1870s reflects the public interest in picturesqueness and asymmetry, characteristics introduced to American architecture by the Gothic Revival and Italianate styles that became even more pronounced in the mid- to late 19th century. Architecture of this period, although still usually based on historical precedent, represented a reaction to the historical bent of the earlier revivalists. Midcentury architects reasoned that no age had produced the perfect architectural expression and that they could benefit from all the best of the past. (Poppeliers, 52)
The 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 Renaissance architect Francois Mansart. (Poppeliers, 52)
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. (Poppeliers, 52)
Second Empire buildings featured prominent projecting and receding surfaces often in the form of central and end pavilions. Ornamentation usually included classical pediments (often with sculpture groups), balustrades and windows flanked by columns or pilasters. Columns were usually paired and supported entablatures that divided the floors of the building. And there was always the mansard roof. The general effect was monumental and ornate and provided comfortable associations with the latest European building fashion. (Poppeliers, 52)
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. (Poppeliers, 52)
Goyer-Lee House (1843, 1853, 1873, Edward C. Jones and Mathias H. Baldwin), Memphis, Tennessee. The brick facade is covered with sandstone veneer and stucco, making it appear more monumental. (Poppeliers, 53)
Capt. Edward Penniman House (1867-68), Eastham, Massachusetts. (Poppeliers, 53)
- Poppeliers, John C.S., et al. What Style Is It? A Guide to American Architecture. Washington, D.C.: The Preservation Press, 1983.