The Mansard Style:
Politics, Tax evasion and Beauty

The Mansard, or Second Empire style of architecture, has its beginnings in the 1600’s in France.  It was named after a talented and egotistical architect François Mansart (1598 – 1666) who popularized the distinctive roofline in his many buildings. Though the actual style of roof had been used in the 15th century – 50 years before François Mansart was born, it was his use of the roofline in his splendid buildings that gave rise to his name being attached to the style.

Hotel Carnavalet, Paris. Designed by Francois Mansart c1560. One of the very few buildings by this architect that is still standing (though featuring a chateau roof on this building, and not a Mansard roof).

The main attribution of the Mansard style is the roofline.  The roof has two slopes, the second approaching the vertical, which is then usually pierced by windows.  There is a story that the style originally resulted from a tax evasion scheme, in which property owners were taxed by the number of floors in their building below the roof line.  The Mansard style of roof made the top floor liveable – and tax free.

The Mansard roof is usually constructed in two straight angles, but variations can be ornately curved, either in convex or concave curves, which add to a fanciful architectural concoction that the Second Empire Style can present.

Remaining primarily a French style of architecture, it was not until the 19th century and the accession of Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie in 1848 that the Mansard style became widely popular.  Their reign established “the Second Empire”, the “First Empire” being that of Napoleon I from 1804 to 1814/1815.

Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie

Napoleon III was responsible for the additions to the Louvre in the 1850’s, and the reconstruction of Paris under Baron George-Eugene Hausmann that swept away the medieval street plan of Paris between 1853 and 1870 resulting in the elegant city we are familiar with today, with wide, straight boulevards lined with Mansard roofed buildings. Napoleon III insisted on the Mansard style as a political gesture, a reinforcing of an ancient French style that lent historic credence and apparent continuity to his reign.

The Louvre still dominates central Paris at top. Nearly every other building in this photograph has a Mansard roof.

Napoleon III’s additions to the Louvre c1862. Here, a combination of forms are used in the Mansard roofs that cap the centre and end pavilions. Straight angles are used in the corner towers, and a convex roof is used over the central entry. The paired columns and elaborate trimmings are hallmarks of the style.

The Napoleon III apartments at the Louvre built c.1862 – open today for visiting. Second Empire interiors emulated these apartments by the use of gilt, rich colourings and ornate plaster work.

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