Second Empire Architecture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The Second Empire architectural style was one of the most important developments of the 19th century. In this lesson, we'll explore this style, identify its defining traits, and consider what it communicated about the people of the era.

Second Empire Architecture

You may have noticed that many architectural styles are closely associated with a specific regime. Groups in power like to use architecture to create visual symbols of their visions for their countries. It's a powerful statement, and one that achieves its goals. After all, we spend a lot of time around buildings. One regime that associated itself with architecture more closely than any other was that of Napoleon III, emperor of the Second French Empire from 1852 to 1870. The result was a style that not only defined Napoleon III's vision, but has largely defined France to this day. We call it, appropriately enough, the Second Empire architecture.

The Second Empire architectural style

Characteristics of Second Empire Architecture

So, how did Napoleon III's grand vision for his empire translate into an architectural style? The Second Empire architectural style is rooted in a revival of Italian and French Baroque forms. Baroque architecture, like that of the Renaissance, was serious, formal, and utilized a high degree of symmetry. However, it was more elaborate and ornate, with lavish decorations and ornamentations both inside and out. The Second Empire style follows these trends. It is a visually heavy style; emphasizing weight, stability, and power. You can understand why an emperor would like it. It is serious and formal, guided by many classical rules of architecture, while featuring extraneous decorations and details that suggest wealth and refinement. Second Empire architecture also tends to visually separate structures into layers, giving it a somewhat stacked appearance that some have compared to a wedding cake.

In terms of basic features, perhaps the most obvious element of the Second Empire structure is the roof. Second Empire architecture is characterized by the use of a mansard roof, which features a change in the slope of the roof near the top. Try this. Hold your hands sideways and completely straight, so that they form a straight line from wrist to fingertips with thumbs facing you. Make your middle fingertips of each hand touch, forming what looks like the top of a triangle with your hands. That's your standard pitched roof. Now, with fingertips still touching, bend each hand at the knuckles. See how the wrist to knuckles is a steep slope, while the fingers are at a gentler slope? That's a mansard roof. Typically, the bottom section of the roof features a series of windows as well. It's such a definitive characteristic of Second Empire architecture that these buildings are sometimes called the mansard style.

Development of Second Empire Architecture

The formal, serious, and lavish Second Empire architectural style communicated monumental strength, unrestrained wealth, and impressive power. It was a fitting symbol for an empire. When Napoleon III made himself emperor of France in 1852, Paris was a large city, but not as respected as it once had been. It was an old city filled with eclectic styles built over centuries, and not yet fully transformed into a modern metropolis of the industrial era like London. On top of that, much of the city had been damaged during France's series of revolutions, and many neighborhoods served as monuments to those who died fighting a previous French emperor.

So Napoleon III commissioned a massive rebuilding of the city. Old neighborhoods were to be torn down and rebuilt in a single, consistent architectural scheme that showed the unity and power of imperial France. To do this, he hired George-Eugène Haussmann to redesign the city. Haussmann's designs filled Paris with Second Empire architecture, creating the unified, beige stone structures that define central Paris to this day.

Second Empire style buildings by Haussmann


Haussmann's Paris set the new standard for urban renovations. It was emulated in London, then made it across the Atlantic to America's cultural center at the time-- Boston. From roughly the 1860s through the 1880s, Second Empire architecture became very popular in the United States. This was especially true in the Midwest and West, which were filling with large cities for the first time. Don't forget, most states in the West didn't advance from territory status until this period. In the United States, Second Empire architecture was associated less with imperial and aristocratic power and more with America's right to participate in international culture.

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