What is a mansard roof?
It’s a roof that is flat on top, or extremely shallow, and slopes down sharply to form the walls of the top floor of the building.
Besides the easily-identifiable roof, other exterior details these houses may have include stones set in the corner brickwork, eyebrow dormers, full-length shutters with panels below the windows, casement sashes, and chimney pots.
While window detail is important in any home, with mansards, it can make the difference between an ordinary building and a dramatic architectural treatment.
Depending on the mansard’s angle of slope, various eye-catching treatments are possible — deep-setting the window sin shadowbox frames or surrounds, processing them behind small or simulated balconies, installing dormers, and adding overhead arches or peaks that resemble dormers.
Second Empire/mansard roofs in the Victorian era
The mansard roof’s big revival came with the High Victorian styles of the 1850s through the 1870s, particularly in the United States.
It was one of the chief features of the French Second Empire style, named for the period of Napoleon III in France, which was given to much building and ostentation, and was more widespread outside of that country than in it.
According to historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, the style “carried something of the Parisian and the palatial” wherever it was used in the non-French world, and it was employed with equal enthusiasm for homes, mills, country villas and public monuments.
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The mansard roof goes back a good deal further than the Nineteenth Century and Victorian taste, however, and is said to be the Seventeenth Century invention of the great French classicist, Francois Mansart.
The history of the mansard-style roof
Mansart’s building style, according to “A Dictionary of Architecture,” by Nikolaus Pevsner, John Fleming and Hugh Honour, was “extremely French in its elegance, clarity and cool restraint.”
Back in the 1600s, in France, two-story houses were taxed at a high rate. In order to get a lower rate for their clients, French architects built many one-and-a-half story houses, with resultant cramped upstairs rooms of the garret type.
One architect, Francois Mansart, found a loophole in the regulations that enabled his customers to avoid the high tax rate and yet have spacious quarters on the second floor.
Keeping the roof eaves just above the first-floor windows, as specified by law, he was able to have his houses classified as one-and-a-half stories. By redesigning the roof with two slopes, the lower one very steep, he was able to offer much more living space on the upper floor.
This type of roof is now known as a mansard — the “t” at the end of the French architect’s name having been changed to a “d” somewhere along the line.
The roof’s practical advantage of permitting larger, highed-ceilinged second-floor rooms has kept it popular through the centuries, with many variations making their appearance.
Text sources include Ada Louise Huxtable in the Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) September 18, 1977; The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah) October 31, 1965; Vidette-Messenger of Porter County (Valparaiso, Indiana) October 14, 1971.
Grafton Tyler double house
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French Second Empire-style home design
Spreckels Mansion in San Francisco with mansard-style roof
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Mansard roof homes in St Paul, Minnesota (1904)
Medieval history of Tenth Street & its Mansards
Not that Rhenish castles fortify St Anthony Hill or Dayton’s Bluff; not that campaniles sanctify the pleasant places over against Lake Como. But there is architecture in St Paul that represents the city’s middle age; that stands for neither the classic period of the ’50s nor yet for that dull time called nowadays.
This fine medieval era, abounding in the towers that its name suggests, may be fixed in the early ’70s — the decade between 1868 and 1878.
St Paul was then as prosperous as a mining town. The Civil War, like most successful wars, had scattered speculative fortunes throughout the country. St Paul and Minneapolis — a healthy suburb — were picking the first fruits of agriculture from the new Northwest.
Railways, the tentacles of commerce, were stretching north and west and south. Lines were building which eventually became the St Paul & Duluth and others.
It was a time to make money; and, “by the same token,” it was a time to build new houses, establish new homes.
Ideal dwellings of the ’70s
And what was the ideal dwelling in those days? Nothing colonial — by no means; houses with columns supporting a front portico were not unfamiliar along Eighth street and out on Fort Street (now West Seventh).
But they were old-fashioned houses; they were Southern houses, too, such as the hateful planters had filled with slaves and pride” The North was too intensely Northern in the ’70s to spend its money on an “Ole Ferginny” mansion. The colonial style and its related changes upon the helpless Grecian being quite impossible, nothing would serve.
Society turned instinctively to Europe. Americans were learning more of Europe than they will learn again. A multitude of families, enriched by the war, were exploring the continent and astonishing their relatives at home with information.
Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad,” a title unintentionally comprehensive, spread more facts European throughout the States than Baedeker can ever hope to contradict.
Society talked of Paris with and without an “s.” The Empress Eugenie and her mustached cavaliers were the dream companions of “our daughter” in all Columbia. Even after France had lost her battlefields to Germany, she became, as often happens, still more influential on the fields of art and fashion.
Must have Mansard roof
Thus every successful American wishing to enthrone himself within a stylish dwelling agreed with his wife that they must abide beneath a Mansard roof. For Mansard roofs were French, are French, will continue to be French until Paris herself is transformed.
It wasn’t a new style upon the Seine; old Mansard had been dust for half a dozen generations. But in St Paul, his stately roofs were novelties to be sighed at — “just the very same kind that they’ve put on the new Palmer house down in Chicago, and you know it’s the biggest and grandest hotel in the world; everybody down there’ll tell you so.”
Having agreed upon the roof as the foundation of his new house the affluent man, and his wife, proceeded to put up the walls. The walls must be brick — stone was so old-fashioned, it went with the big columns of those horrid old houses.
And the brick must be Milwaukee brick. Not because Milwaukee was yet famous — though some of the brands were popular — but because Milwaukee brick was pressed brick of a rude sort, and its color was a picturesque suggestion of foam-tinted amber; yet chiefly because Milwaukee brick had been selected for their house by the most artistic representatives of Chicago prosperity.
The general shape of the new houses approximated to the squares. The design fitted that Mansard roof, no doubt, and suggested those strange French flats in Paris, where half a dozen families actually lived in the same house — very respectable families, too.
And the American people, so long familiar with the rectangular dwellings of their ancestors, had not yet begun to understand that small, irregular rooms, uninhabitable nooks, stairways ascending to the top of stairways going down, can give much comfort to a decorator’s life.
Had to have large panes
Finally, the tall windows must have large panes in contrast with the little panes that mark all antebellum houses; the exterior “trimmings” of the dwelling must be wood — brown, sanded wood, offensive to the touch — and tho whole two stories must take on baronial dignity from a dominating three-story tower.
Becker House, 612 Lafayette Avenue. Usually the tower was square. Always — to borrow Mary MacLane’s one literary mark — always it was capped with a Mansard roof; and always, too, its upper windows cast back the sunbeams from a multitude of tall and big-paned windows.
Who lived in the tower was a subject of gossip by the humble. Not the “hired girl,” or both of them — some families with Mansard roofs employed two “girls;” it would hardly be modest in that pinnacle of publicity.
The passing schoolm’am may have called the tower a genuine “solarium,” or sunbath room; but even the blue-glass cure was yet to be exploited; golf hadn’t been imported; freckles were not esteemed a tonic.
This “palace” of the ’70’s, taken all in all, was a dignified house; aside from its “gingerbread” “trimmings” of wood it was unpretentious. Within it was convenient, roomy; it wasted no space, it served “the simple life.”
It had then, it still retains, a personality, an impressiveness, of its own. It had not, indeed, the dignity, the aristocratic exclusiveness, that clothed the older, cheaper houses of the portico and the fluted column.
But it is a fact not easily explained that, with few exceptions, the large, elaborate stone dwellings erected recently in American cities are much less dignified, much less individual, than were the wood and stucco temples of the early day, or even than the yellow Mansards of the ’70s.
Bloom Mansion, Colorado
The 1882 Second Empire-style Bloom Mansion Museum, part of a block-long museum complex in Trinidad, Colorado, on the Purgatoire River on the northern end of the Raton Pass leading into New Mexico. Its builder, Frank Bloom, was a businessman and cattle baron whose cattle holdings extended from New Mexico to Montana. (Photo by Carol Highsmith/LOC)
The Belvedere home, Wisconsin
The Belvedere — the former palatial home of Milwaukee banker Alexander Mitchell that become the fashionable home and wedding venue of the Wisconsin Club — in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Carol Highsmith/LOC)
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