Second Empire (architecture)

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The best-known example of the style is the Opéra Garnier, a mixture of Neo-Renaissance and Neo-Baroque architecture.

Second Empire is an architectural style, most popular between 1865 and 1880, and so named for the "French" elements in vogue during the era of the Second French Empire. In a significant variation it is sometimes called the Napoleon III style. While a distinct style unto itself, some Second Empire styling cues, such as quoins, have an indirect relationship to the styles previously in vogue, Gothic Revival and Italianate eras. This style originated in Paris during the late 19th century.


Second Empire in France

Élysée Palace garden façade.

Second Empire in the United States

Heck-Andrews House (1870) in Raleigh, North Carolina; a typical wood-constructed, towered example in the United States.

In the United States, the Second Empire style usually combined a rectangular tower, or similar element, with a steep, but short, mansard roof; the roof being the most noteworthy link to the style's French roots. This tower element could be of equal height as the highest floor, or could exceed the height of the rest of the structure by a story or two. The mansard roof crest was often topped with an iron trim, sometimes referred to as "cresting". In some cases, lightning rods were integrated into the cresting design, making the feature useful beyond its decorative features. Although still intact in some examples, often this original cresting has deteriorated and been removed. The exterior style could be expressed in either wood, brick or stone. More elaborate examples frequently featured paired columns as well as sculpted details around the doors, windows and dormers. The purpose of the ornamentation was to make the structure appear imposing, grand and expensive.

Floor plans for Second Empire residences could either be symmetrical, with the tower (or tower-like element) in the center, or asymmetrical, with the tower or tower-like element to one side. The McAlesters [see references] divided the style into five subtypes:

The architect H.H. Richardson designed several of his early residences in the style, "evidence [Ochsner, see references] of his French schooling." These projects include the Crowninshield House, Boston Massachusetts, 1868, the H.H. Richardson House, Staten Island, New York, 1868 and the William Dorsheimer House, Buffalo, New York, 1868.

Leland M. Roth [see references] refers to the style as "Second Empire Baroque." Mullett-Smith [see references] terms it the "Second Empire or General Grant style" due to its popularity in building government buildings during the Grant administration.

The style was also used for commercial structures, and was often used when designing state institutions. Several psychiatric hospitals proved the style's adaptability to their size and functions. Prior to the construction of The Pentagon during the 1940s, the Second Empire-style Ohio State Asylum for the Insane in Columbus, Ohio was reported to be the largest building under one roof in the U.S., though the title may actually belong to Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, another Kirkbride Second Empire asylum.

Second Empire was succeeded by the revival of the Queen Anne Style and its sub-styles, which enjoyed great popularity until the beginning of the "Revival Era" in American architecture just before the end of the 19th century.

Notable buildings

United States

Old Executive Office Building, Washington, D.C.
Old City Hall, Boston

United Kingdom

Old Billingsgate Market, London, England.


Montreal Hôtel de Ville, original design. Rebuilt after 1922 fire in the Beaux-Arts style.

In Canada, Second Empire became the choice of the new Dominion government in the 1870s and 1880s for numerous public buildings and the provinces followed suit.


Shamrock Hotel, Bendigo, Australia

In Australia, especially Melbourne this style became popular during the boom years of the 1880s. Many grand buildings exist today, particularly many of Melbourne's town halls.




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