American Empire Style Architecture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The United States does not traditionally celebrate imperialism, but imperial styles are another matter. In this lesson, we'll look at the Empire Style and Second Empire Style and see how they arrived in the United States.

America and the Empires Styles

The United States was founded as a colonial nation that fought for independence against an empire. The country put many efforts into erasing the legacies of European imperialism, but there was one truth they couldn't always ignore: those European empires know a thing or two about style.

The fashions established in Europe were often emulated in the USA. It was a way for Americans to show that they belonged among Western powers. This extended to architecture and design as well. Throughout the 19th century, there were two different imperial styles that became popular in the United States. The USA may have been a colonial nation, but some of those imperial fashions were too great to ignore.

The Empire

The first style we're going to explore is what we call the Empire Style, which originated in France under the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte (r. 1804-1814). At the time when Napoleon came into power, much of Europe was experimenting with neoclassical architecture, which revived ancient Greek and Roman forms. Napoleon, seeing himself as the greatest emperor since antiquity, took this further. He used architecture to build up a visual connection between his empire and the Roman Empire, developing the Empire Style. That's why you can find Roman-style imperial monuments like triumphal arches in Paris.

For the most part, however, the Empire Style was not really a style of architecture. It was a style of design, used to decorate the interiors of neoclassical structures. Empire Style furniture drew heavily on Roman imperial motifs, as well as those from ancient Greece and ancient Egypt.

After roughly 1815, the Empire Style became popular in the United States, where it was known as the American Empire Style. American Empire Style furniture and interiors were again used to ornament the interiors of neoclassical buildings and homes.

American Empire Style table
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So, what did American Empire Style furniture look like? While earlier neoclassical styles tended to be more reserved and contained, the Empire Style in both France and the USA was elaborate and highly decorative. Greek and Roman motifs like vases, urns, wreaths, laurels, columns, and scrolls were extremely popular, as were Egyptian motifs like palm leaves, sphinxes, and lotuses. Furniture items were large and bulky to communicate wealth and power, and they were often covered in opulent veneers. Tables often included polished marble tops as well. Splashes of gold and other symbols of wealth completed the imperial grandeur of the designs.

One notable aspect of the Empire Style was the revival of ancient forms of furniture. Greek and Roman-style reclining sofas once again became popular, as did the klismos chair, a Greek chair with a curved back and legs.

This focus on design expanded to many interiors as well. After all, what's the point of being rich enough to buy fashionable furniture if it doesn't match the room? The characteristic American Empire Style room contained blue walls and pure white, decorative architectural elements like columns, pilasters, and friezes built into cornices, fireplaces, window frames, and anywhere else they'd fit.

The Second Empire Style

The Empire Style faded in France after the fall of Napoleon, and in the USA it faded a little while later. France, however, hadn't seen the last of the Bonapartes. Napoleon's nephew became president of France in the 1840s, and in 1852 he had himself crowned Napoleon III of France's Second Empire.

One of Napoleon III's major projects was to rebuild Paris, which was in many ways still a cramped, medieval city. He wanted it to feel like the center of a modern empire. So, Napoleon III commissioned George-Eugène Haussmann to renovate the city. Haussmann enlarged the boulevards, consolidated the city aesthetic, improved the infrastructure, and set the tone for modern cities around the world. Out of this also came a distinctive style of architecture used in the renovation of Paris known as the Second Empire style.

Second Empire structure in France
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