Tuesday, February 19, 2019


The Mansard roof has become synonymous
with the streetscapes of Paris.
If you want proof that architectural styles are cyclical, just look at houses with mansard roofs.  They’re easy to pick out, because their curious roofs have two pitches—a steeply-sloped lower one and an upper one that’s nearly flat. Unlike many residential styles we've looked at in these little essays, Mansard-roofed houses aren’t confined to a single era; in fact, they’ve recurred many times over the centuries, often with little more than their eye-catching roofs to relate them.

The mansard roof first appeared in France early in the 16th century, when Parisian flats were taxed on the number of stories they contained. Legend has it that the steep front slope was used to hide an additional story, thereby duping the taxman. However humble its origin, the mansard soon appeared uptown as well, where it graced such Gallic landmarks as the Palace of the Louvre.

Beginning in the 1620s, the French architect Francois Mansart (1598-1666) made such prolific use of this roof style that posterity eventually linked it with a corrupted form of his name: mansard. The charismatic shape remained a staple of French architecture throughout the Renaissance, when it was used in ever more elaborate forms.

The mansard very quickly moved upscale, as can be seen
at the Palace of the Louvre (designed by a whole series
of architects over the centuries, though culminating
 in I.M. Pei's very un-Mansartian glass pyramid).
The mansard roof returned again in the 1860s, this time as the latest craze in the succession of revivalist styles we call Victorian. Architects and builders of this era were no less creative with the mansard than their predecessors. The profile of the steep portion might be flat, concave or convex; some even boasted an exuberant S-curve.  The roof’s surfaces were often adorned with various combinations of “fishscale” and other shingle patterns; some even sported polychrome decoration. Cresting—lacy iron fencing defining the roof’s perimeter—formed the icing on this mansard confection. Alas, most Victorian houses lost their original cresting to World War II scrap metal drives. 

During the Modernist era, a mansard roof
signified a style that was fusty, outdated,
and, well, a little creepy—such as
Norman Bates's house in "Psycho".
 After a hundred years of slumber, mansard roofs returned for yet another encore in the mid-1960s, eventually flowering into one of the biggest architectural fads of 1970s. As such, mansards adorned a vast array of new homes and apartment buildings, not to mention donut shops, gas stations, and hamburger joints. The mansard roof was an easy way to make any building—old or new—look different.  Architects grafted them onto all kind of existing buildings as well. One manufacturer even offered a prefabricated mansard that could be literally bolted onto an existing two-story building, thus miraculously updating its look. And alas, many folks took him up on it.

Got a 60s or 70’s-era mansard on your house?  If so, you should feel privileged— you’ve got an architectural feature that traces its lineage all the way back to the Louvre.

The mansard roof made yet another comeback, peaking
as the red-hot style of the 1970s. Some examples worked,
some didn't.
Of course, mansards do have drawbacks.  Functionally, they combine the worst of both worlds: they have both a steep, hard-to-reroof portion, as well as a flat, leak-prone portion. The high visibility of the steep part makes it especially crucial to choose a decent roof material—composition shingle just won’t stand up to this kind of in-your-face scrutiny. On the other hand, many mansards aren’t sturdy enough to support heavyweight roof materials such as slate or concrete tile.  Now you know why McDonald’s used to put sheet metal shingles on their mansards.

Incidentally, a few highfalutin’ academics like to use the term “Second Empire” for Victorian homes with mansard roofs—a reference to the roughly-commensurate reign of Napoleon III.
Don’t be fooled.  It’s the same old roof with a fancier name.

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