The Changing Face of the Second Empire

In the 1860s and 70s, there was an architectural style that took the world by storm.

It was called “Second Empire”, named after the French Second Empire of Napoleon III’s reign as Emperor of France (1852-70).

Napoleon III by Alexandre Cabanel, 1865
Napoleon III by Alexandre Cabanel, 1865

Period paintings give us an idea of what Paris was like during the French Second Empire.

Music in the Tuileries Gardens, by Edouard Manet (1862). The parks of Paris, particularly the Tuileries gardens and the new Bois de Boulogne, provided entertainment and relaxation for all classes of Parisians during the Second Empire.
Music in the Tuileries Gardens, by Edouard Manet (1862). The parks of Paris, particularly the Tuileries gardens and the new Bois de Boulogne, provided entertainment and relaxation for all classes of Parisians during the Second Empire.
Party night at the Tuileries, June 10, 1867 by Pierre Tetar van Elven, 1867.
Party night at the Tuileries, June 10, 1867 by Pierre Tetar van Elven, 1867.
The Avenue de l'Opera, one of the new boulevards created by Napoleon III. The new buildings on the boulevards were required to be all of the same height and same basic façade design, and all faced with cream-hued stone, giving the city center its distinctive harmony.
The Avenue de l’Opera, one of the new boulevards created by Napoleon III. The new buildings on the boulevards were required to be all of the same height and same basic façade design, and all faced with cream-hued stone, giving the city center its distinctive harmony.

And the opulent interiors hark back to an age of extravagance.

The Grand Foyer of the Opera Garnier, Paris. Image credit Degrémont Anthony.
The Grand Foyer of the Opera Garnier, Paris. Image credit Degrémont Anthony.
The Salon doré (Golden Room), office of the President of the French Republic. Image credit Chatsam.
The Salon doré (Golden Room), office of the President of the French Republic. Image credit Chatsam.
Second Empire style Grand Salon in the Apartements of Napoléon III, Louvre palace.
Second Empire style Grand Salon in the Apartements of Napoléon III, Louvre palace.

The Second Empire style was characterized by a multifarious mix of earlier European styles—particularly Baroque—often having mansard roofs and square based domes.

An abundance of Neo-Baroque decorative elements on the south façade of the Opéra Garnier in Paris, France. Image credit Paris16
An abundance of Neo-Baroque decorative elements on the south façade of the Opéra Garnier in Paris, France. Image credit Paris16
Roof detail of a Second Empire style house in Salem, Massachusetts
Mansard roof detail of a Second Empire style house in Salem, Massachusetts
A square-based domes tops the Mitchell Building, an 1876 office building, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Image credit Kenneth C. Zirkel
A square-based dome tops the Mitchell Building—an 1876 office building, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Image credit Kenneth C. Zirkel

Second Empire could be easily scaled, making it good for a variety of municipal and corporate buildings.

The Élysée Palace (Official residence of the President of France since 1848). Image credit Remi Mathis.
The Élysée Palace (Official residence of the President of France since 1848). Image credit Remi Mathis.
Baltimore City Hall, Baltimore, Maryland. Complete 1875
Baltimore City Hall, Baltimore, Maryland. Completed 1875
Alfred B. Mullett's former State, War and Navy Building, Washington, D.C., begun during the Grant administration and built between 1871 and 1888.
Alfred B. Mullett’s former State, War and Navy Building, Washington, D.C., begun during the Grant administration and built between 1871 and 1888.
Central Post Office, Buenos Aires, Argentina (1909 - 1928). Image Credit Albano Azarian.
Central Post Office, Buenos Aires, Argentina (1909 – 1928). Image Credit Albano Azarian.
Facade of the Brussels Stock Exchange, Belgium. Built 1873. Image credit Ben2.
Facade of the Brussels Stock Exchange, Belgium. Built 1873. Image credit Ben2.
Mansard rooftops along Boulevard Haussmann in Paris constructed during the Second French Empire. Image credit Thierry Bézecourt.
Mansard rooftops along Boulevard Haussmann in Paris constructed during the Second French Empire. Image credit Thierry Bézecourt.
Caldwell County Courthouse, Lockhart, Texas. Built 1894. Image credit CMBJ.
Caldwell County Courthouse, Lockhart, Texas. Built 1894. Image credit CMBJ.

The style spread throughout Europe and across to the United States, where the tower and mansard roof were often the most notable Second Empire elements.

Cresting around the roof and tower became a popular decoration in the US and sometimes acted as a lightning conductor.

 Ornate creasting across the roof of Glanmore Mansion was completed in 1883 for John Philpot Curran Phillips. Image credit Bill Badzo, flickr.
Ornate creasting across the roof of Glanmore Mansion was completed in 1883 for John Philpot Curran Phillips. Image credit Bill Badzo, flickr.
Cresting around the mansard-roofed tower of the Joseph R. Bodwell House, Hallowell, Maine. Built 1865. Image credit Taoab.
Cresting around just the tower of the Joseph R. Bodwell House, Hallowell, Maine. Built 1865. Image credit Taoab.

Made of wood, brick or stone, elaborate examples often had paired columns as well as sculpted details around the doors, windows, and dormers.

Paired pillars on Negley-Gwinner-Harter House, Bellefield, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Image credit Joseph, flickr
Paired pillars on Negley-Gwinner-Harter House, Bellefield, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Image credit Joseph, flickr
Sculpted details around windows and dormers of a House on Luzerne St at Warren, West Pittston, Luzerne County, PA. Image credit Brad Clinesmith, flickr.
Sculpted details around windows and dormers of a House on Luzerne St at Warren, West Pittston, Luzerne County, PA. Image credit Brad Clinesmith, flickr.

For the nouveau riche, the opulent Second Empire style was the perfect choice to express their new found wealth.

But by the 1880’s, it started to fall out of favor. In came the Queen Anne style, with its wraparound porches, round towers, overhanging eaves and painted balustrades.
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By the mid-20th century, thousands of Second Empire homes were demolished in sweeping urban renewal programs.

Instead of harking back to a glorious age, the style became associated with horror thanks to TV shows like the Addams Family and the 1960 movie Psycho.

The Psycho set on the Universal lot, featuring a Ford Custom 300 similar to that driven by Janet Leigh in the film.
The Psycho set on the Universal Studios lot, featuring a Ford Custom 300 similar to that driven by Janet Leigh in the film.

Today, Second Empire is comparatively rare, but some outstanding examples live on as reminders of a glorious bygone era.

Shard Villa (The Columbus Smith Estate) Salisbury, Vermont. Completed 1874. Image credit Don Shall.
Shard Villa (The Columbus Smith Estate) Salisbury, Vermont. Completed 1874. Image credit Don Shall.
The Second Empire style Hegeler Carus Mansion on Seventh Street in LaSalle, Illinois. Image credit Terence Faircloth, flickr
The Second Empire style Hegeler Carus Mansion on Seventh Street in LaSalle, Illinois. Image credit Terence Faircloth, flickr
Second Empire in St John, New Brunswick, Canada. Formerly known as Earl House and built in 1870.. Image credit Julien Duguay
Second Empire in St John, New Brunswick, Canada. Formerly known as Earl House and built in 1870.. Image credit Julien Duguay
North Adams Public Library (North Adams, Massachusetts). Built in 1865 for Sanford Blackinton. Image credit C Hanchey, flickr.
North Adams Public Library (North Adams, Massachusetts). Built in 1865 for Sanford Blackinton. Image credit C Hanchey, flickr.
Glen Auburn, Second Empire in Natchez, MIssissippi. Credit Tom Barnes.
Glen Auburn, Second Empire in Natchez, MIssissippi. Credit Tom Barnes.
George Wise House/Bibber Memorial Chapel, Kennebunk, ME. Built 1868. Photo credit Doug Copeland, flickr.
George Wise House/Bibber Memorial Chapel, Kennebunk, ME. Built 1868. Photo credit Doug Copeland, flickr.
John Gilbert, Jr Mansion, Ypsilanti, MI. Image credit: Doug Copeland, flickr
John Gilbert, Jr Mansion, Ypsilanti, MI. Image credit: Doug Copeland, flickr
Bossler Mansion, St. Anne's Hill, Dayton, Ohio. Circa 1870s. Image credit John S., flickr.
Bossler Mansion, St. Anne’s Hill, Dayton, Ohio. Completed 1869. Image credit John S., flickr.


Music of the Second Empire

Jacques Offenbach became known for his operettas satirising the French court of Napoleon III during the Second Empire. But it was good-natured and Napoleon so enjoyed it that he personally granted Offenbach French citizenship and the Légion d’Honneur.

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