The Second Empire style of architecture, also known as the Mansard style, is of French inspiration. France’s Second Empire, under Napoleon III and Eugenie, lasted from 1852 to 1870. During this glamorous period the boulevards of Paris were lined with grand townhouses with mansard roofs. A mansard roof has a very shallow slope on the top, and a very steep slope on the sides, with dormer windows. It was named for 17th-century architect Francois Mansart, who used it on most of his buildings. The mansard roof became popular during the Second Empire because a new property tax was imposed based on the height of a building, but the height was measured only to the lower edge of the roof. With a mansard roof, one could add an extra story without paying extra taxes.
By the 1860s this style spread to the United States, and because of its popularity during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, it was often called the “General Grant” style. (It is doubtful that it was ever called that in Raleigh.) The style was brought to Raleigh in 1870 by New Jersey architect George H. S. Appleget when he designed 301 N. Blount St. for Jonathan Heck. Heck then had Appleget design three houses in Oakwood for speculation: 503 E. Jones St. and 511 E. Jones St., and 218 N. East St. Each of these wonderful houses has a tower, also a typical Second Empire feature. The main roofs are convex, and the tower roofs are concave, whereas the opposite is true at 301 N. Blount St. 406 E. Lane St. is also in the Second Empire style; it was once the carriage house for the Second Empire W. J. Hawkins House on Blount St., which was torn down.
304 Oakwood Avenue is, in its form, a North Carolina Mid-Victorian vernacular house with a saddle roof, but it has a wonderful Second Empire tower with a mansard roof. 304 E. Jones St. also has a tower with a mansard roof, topped with iron cresting, another popular feature of the style.
The mansard roof is the defining characteristic of the Second Empire style. Its other details are very similar to the Italianate style, which was still popular when the Second Empire reached the U.S.: arched windows, often paired, elaborate window frames (Second Empire houses often added scrolls to the window frames, as on the Heck houses), and brackets under the eaves, often paired. Some have called the Second Empire style “Italianate with a mansard roof.”
The original porch woodwork on all Oakwood’s Second Empire houses, as well as its Italianate houses, is the “Chamfered Victorian” type. It is nothing one would ever find in 19th-century Paris, and America’s larger Second Empire buildings, such as the Philadelphia City Hall, the Old Executive Office Building in Washington, or the Century Post Office on Raleigh’s Fayetteville St., have Classical details instead. But “Chamfered Victorian” woodwork was the reigning style on the grander houses of the period and it worked well with the mansard roof and other details of the Second Empire style. On 218 N. East St., the original Chamfered Victorian porch was replaced around 1910 by the larger Neoclassical Revival porch with Doric columns. Ironically, this is more similar in its detail to what one would have seen in Paris during the actual Second Empire.