The Second Empire Style and its Signature Roof

Photo by Dennis Evanosky. Edward Childs built this home in 1880 for Adolph Schnabel. The design combines elements of the Stick style with the Second-Empire style’s mansard roof.

In 1880 Adolph H. Schnabel hired Edward Childs to build a home for him at 2233 Santa Clara Ave. The federal census, taken in June of that year, shows Adolph and his brother Augustus living in Otto Beck’s hotel on Montgomery Street in San Francisco. Both the census and the home’s documents list Adolph Schnabel as a mining expert.

Adolph Schnabel’s home sports the mansard roof of the Second- Empire-style, which became popular in the 1850s in France. The style’s signature roof appeared all over Great Britain and the United States as other architects followed the French lead.
Along with this roof, homes in the Second-Empire style, like the one at 2233 Santa Clara Ave., also have either an Italianate- or Stick-style flavor with square decorative window crowns, brackets and single-story porches. The Schnabel home has unmistakable Stick-style elements. 

But the roof really sets the Second-Empire-style home apart. François Mansart, for whom the roof is named, was born is 1598 in Paris. He worked as a master carpenter, stonemason and sculptor. He turned his attention to architecture in his early 20s. Mansart was such a perfectionist that he would sometimes tear down his own buildings and start over again.  Consequently only the wealthiest patrons could afford to work with him.

The only surviving example of his early work is the chateau of Balleroy. The best preserved example of his mature style is the chateau of Maisons-Laffitte.

When Louis XIV became king in 1643, Mansart lost many of his commissions to other architects. For example, he had commissions to redesign the Louvre and the royal mausoleum at Saint-Denis; neither was executed. 

Mansart, who died in 1666, is best known for a roof that he did not invent, but perfected and used widely to crown his creations. He began with a hip roof and added dormer windows. This simpler design is evident at Balleroy. As time went on, Mansart gave his eponymous roof two pitches — a flatter pitch on top and a much steeper pitch on the sides. 

The Second-Empire style became very popular because Mansart’s roof efficiently allowed complete use of a building’s top floor. 

Some say that the style allowed building owners in France to evade a portion of their property taxes. The French government taxed buildings based on their height calculated from the ground to the cornice line. By placing the top floor above the cornice line building owners got an additional floor — tax-free.

To learn more about Mansart’s contribution to our architectural landscape visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mansard_roof

Contact Dennis Evanosky at editor@alamedasun.com.