Ridge Ave Roxborough Historic District

Second Empire Architecture


The Second Empire style was a dominant style for American houses  constructed between 1860 and 1880, although the first examples were  built in the 1850s and late examples were not uncommon in the 1880s. The  contemporaneous Italianate and Gothic Revival styles were part of a  Picturesque movement which looked to the romantic past for inspiration.  In contrast, the Second Empire style was considered very modern, for it  imitated the latest French building fashions. The distinctive roof  design of the style was named for the seventeenth-century French  architect François Mansart. Its use was extensively revived in France  during the reign of Napolean III (1852-70), France’s Second Empire, from  which the style takes its name. Exhibitions in Paris in 1855 and 1867  helped to popularize the style in England, from whence it spread to the  United States. The boxy roof line was considered particularly functional  because it permitted a full upper story of usable attic space. For this  reason, the style became popular for the remodeling of earlier  buildings as well as for new construction. The Second Empire style was  used for many public buildings in the United States including  Philadelphia’s City Hall. It passed from fashion following the panic of  1873 and the subsequent economic depression. The Second Empire style is  characterized by its distinctive roof, a steep, dual-pitched, hipped  roof with dormers and molded cornices at the base and peak. Below the  cornice line, the Second Empire style shares much with the Italianate  style including decorative brackets, ornate door and window surrounds,  double doors, and one-story porches. 107


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Numerous detached and semi-detached houses in the Second Empire style  were constructed in Roxborough in the years after the Civil War, as the  area transitioned from a linear village to a suburb. Houses with the  distinctive mansard roofs can be found throughout the lower northwest  section of Philadelphia, but are especially prevalent in the Wissahickon  and Leverington neighborhoods, which were intensely developed following  the war. The Second Empire house at 5504 Ridge Avenue, which dates to  about 1880, is an excellent example of the style (Figure 36). The  gracious home is set on a large corner lot with a schist retaining wall.  The three-story schist house displays many of the character-defining  features of the Second Empire style including a concave mansard roof  with fish-scale slate cladding and dormers with decorative hoods,  bracketed wood cornice, segmental-arch windows, wraparound porch  supported by Doric columns, two-story bay window, and tall windows at  the porch. The Second Empire twin at 5550-52 Ridge Avenue is also an  excellent example of the style and shares many of the same  character-defining features as its relative to the east at 5504 Ridge  Avenue. Notable are its arched dormers with two-over-two arched windows.  The Second Empire twin at 8155-57 Ridge Avenue is likewise an excellent  example of the style, even though the southern half has lost its  bracketed porch. Notable is the cornice with broad entablature and large  brackets.


This information has been posted by RMWHS with the permission of the Philadelphia Historical Commission.


107 Drawn from Virginia & Lee McAlester, A Field Guide to American Houses (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), p. 239-243.