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Second Empire Architecture

What is Second Empire architecture? This is an architectural style that originally flourished during the period of the "Second Empire" in France (1852-1870), when Napoleon's nephew, Napoleon III, ruled.  During this time, Napoleon III hired urban planner Georges E. Haussman to redesign Paris, and along the newly created grand boulevards, buildings in Second Empire style were built.  The style had the goal of impressing the visitor with a feeling of grandeur and class, and buildings are most easily recognized by their mansard roofs (named after François Mansart who first helped popularize the design in the 16th century).  The mansard roof allows for maximum use of interior attic space, offers a simple way of adding an extra storey or two to an existing building without adding any new masonry, and their curved or convex nature allows for additional decorative functions such as iron trimmed roof cresting and elaborate dormer windows. The Second Empire style became popular outside of France.  In Canada, where its popularity peaked in the 1870s, there were variations of this style, including the use of central towers - which had a more Italianate influence - which acted as another focal point to draw the eyes to other decorations on the building. Beaverbrook House / La maison Beaverbrook, PNB, 2002

You can find a particularly fine example of Second Empire architecture in the three storey Beaverbrook House of Mirimachi, New Brunswick.  Designed by architect D. E. Dunham for local shipbuilder William Watt in 1877, the house features many traditional Second Empire elements such as a mansard roof, elaborate dormer windows (hip dormers on the second floor and gabled dormers on the third floor with moulded window surrounds), decorative brackets, and a roofline embellished with steel ridge cresting.  Additional features include projecting bay windows and wooden clap-board siding.  The Beaverbrook House is a good illustration of asymmetrical Second Empire design, more commonly found in residential buildings than public structures.  The terraced lawn of Beaverbrook House slopes downwards toward the street and town, adding to the impressive public image.  The house is also interesting because it is associated with Lord Beaverbrook, a prominent politician, publisher, and philanthropist.

Montréal City Hall / L'Hôtel de ville de MontréalIf you are in Montreal, you might want to have a look at the Montréal City Hall to get another impression of the Second Empire style.   Built between 1872 and 1878, this majestic stone structure rises five storeys above the street.  Likely modelled on some of the great public buildings built in Paris in the previous two decades, this building is noteworthy partly because it is the first city administrative building in Canada intended as a city hall, with over half the original space devoted to ceremonial functions.  It functions as a statement of Montreal's international status in the late 19th century as a growing hub for trade and commerce.  Its Second Empire features include steep, metal-clad mansard roofs, extensive use of dormers to enliven the roofline, a symmetrical façade dominated by a projecting, two-storey pedimented entrance pavilion and flanking end pavilions, prominent stringcourses dividing each storey, and a classical decorative vocabulary.  Cox Terrace, Peterborough LACAC


In Peterborough, Ontario a particularly lively example of Second Empire architecture can be found in the Cox Terrace, now a national historic site of Canada.  Built in 1884 for the influential and wealthy businessman George A. Cox, this is a residential terrace with an elaborate design rarely seen in Canadian residential row housing.    It has a prominent central projecting block three storeys in height, recessed  wings that are two-and-a-half storeys, and three-storey, stepped projecting end pavillions.  Its more identifiable displays of the Second Empire style include curved and straight mansard roofs, projecting bay windows, and hooded and circular dormers.  More intricate details of the Second Empire style include eaves with decorative brackets, a balustraded pseudo-parapet over the central block, hood moulding over dormer windows, circular and arched dormer windows, and three-sided bay windows.  Cox Terrace is an expression of Peterborough's growth in the 1870s and 1880s as a key railway hub and as one of Ontario's primary industrial towns.

Convent of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, Manitoba Historic Resources Branch, 2005 / Couvent des Soeurs des Saints Noms de Jésus et de Marie, direction des ressources historiques de Manitoba, 2005Though the Second Empire style was used in Canada in the late 19th century as an expression of wealth and of a certain kind of cosmopolitanism that was mainly used on commercial, public, and private buildings, certain religious institutions accommodated it too.  For example, the Catholic Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba found the style so appealing that long after the style had died away in popularity elsewhere, they built the Convent of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary in 1900.  Planned by architect and contractor J. A. Senecal, this building features a symmetrical design which includes a T-shaped integrated north wing.  The building incorporates many key aspects of the Second Empire style such as a central tower, a steeply-pitched mansard roof, and tall rectangular windows.  The building has served as a convent, a girls' boarding facility, and educational centre, music school, infirmary, and a commercial complex.  Its massive footprint dominates the site, and has been a key focal point for the neighbourhood for over a hundred years.

The Prairie provinces and British Columbia generally have few examples of the Second Empire style, mainly because these regions were developed long after the style fell out of fashion.  A few examples include the Marr Residence (1883) in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; the Union Bank Building (1899) in Fort Macleod, Alberta; and the Yale Hotel (1888) in Vancouver, B.C.  One of the best expressions of the Second Empire style Victoria City Hall / L'Hôtel de ville de Victoriain Western Canada can be found in Victoria, B.C., with the Victoria City Hall.  Built between 1878 and 1890, the building is a two-and-a-half storey balconied administrative structure featuring polychromatic brickwork, a central clock tower, mansard roof, hooded dormer windows, and decorative brackets.  It was intended to function as a civic landmark.  The building continues to dominate downtown Victoria and is still the seat of local government.

The Second Empire architectural style generally fell out of fashion from the 1890s onward, and many Second Empire buildings suffered from fires, and early 20th century fire departments thought that these fires usually started in the mansard roofs.  As a consequence, in the 1920s and 1930s, many of these buildings in commercial districts had their mansard roofs removed.  In the 1950s through the 1970s, the buildings suffered from the general view that they were too elaborate for modern downtown streets, and so were torn down in their entirety.  Yet, since 1960 when the Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho came out - with the Bates House as the centrepiece of the movie - houses built in the Second Empire style gained attention in our popular culture, and they have developed a certain kind of haunting romantic Victorianism (Hitchcock added to this impression by calling the style "California Gothic").   

Today, remaining historic Second Empire buildings of all forms are celebrated, reminding us of the elegance of France, as well as the worldly aspirations of late 19th century Canadian society.  Any neighbourhood will be given a touch of class if there is a Second Empire building in it.