Everything has its history, including the roofline of your closest fast food restaurant. Fast food chain architecture seems to be streamlining now, cutting out decoration until nothing but minimalist blocks remain; walls transition seamlessly to windows, and corners are crisp and unadorned. Through the latter half of the twentieth century, however, fast-food joints followed a Neoeclectic craze that Louis Napoleon couldn’t have dreamed of: a sleek, metal, parred-down adaptation of the French mansard roof. Order a fast-food roof and you’ll get it hot and ready-to-go: it may be prepackaged and there may only be three varieties, but culture and history are the ketchup packages that come with your meal whether you request them or not.
The mansard roof was popularized during Louis Napoleon’s reign, 1852-1870. The addition to the Louvre during this period was built with an elaborate mansard roof. The ornate apartment buildings along Paris’s grand boulevards followed suit. Urban legend has it that Parisians were taxed by the number of stories in their buildings and the mansard roof created an extra floor that, being part of the roof, didn’t count. Whether or not this is true, the mansard roof was undeniably practical: with its steep sides and flat top, it looks the part of a roof while providing an almost full floor of living space.
Paris held two International Expositions in the latter half of the 19th century ( in 1855 and 1867), and once it reached the United States, the mansard roof spread like wildfire. Second Empire style (1855-1885), which encapsulates most of the buildings that come to mind when we hear “mansard roof,” appeared in the form of everything from post offices and government buildings to residences. The fall-out of Second Empire style is, today, notorious. The style was swept aside as the Romantic movement emerged from England in the 1870s. Victorian Gothic and Richardsonian took the floor as Americans looked to move to a new period following the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. In 1940, Roger Gilman noted of Second Empire’s fall that, “we escape from our fathers, respect our grandfathers, and sentimentalize our ancestors.” Architecture must survive this period of distaste for us to gain understanding and appreciation.
Old mansard roofs have a romance to them, perhaps because they remind of Paris, even to those who haven’t been. Mansard roofs appear in movies, songs, and pieces of art. When finding yourself not in Paris, you may dismiss the mansard roof and not look up. But I promise, if you start looking around, you may see its influence more often than you think.
Gilman, Roger. “Mansard Legacy.” Parnassus, Vol 12, No 5 (May 1940): 30-33.
McAlester, Virginia and Lee. A Field Guide to American Houses. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
McNamara, Sarah. “The Rise and Fall of the Mansard Roof.” The Old-House Journal, Vol XII, No 7 (Sept 1984): 151-155.
Some quick photo credits:
The middle right photo is of Morrill Hall, an example of Second Empire style (more modest but elegant), courtesy of University of Nevada, Reno. The Burger King (top left) could be anywhere, but I snapped this photo this weekend in Seattle.