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Dec. 8, 2019 | Sunday
Editorials and Opinions
Archi-i-text: It's a rarity in NOTL
An example of Second Empire design in Niagara. (Brian Marshall/Niagara Now)

There is something glorious about fully-expressed Second Empire buildings.

Perhaps it has to do with the vertical lines, which draw one’s eyes upward. Then again, it may be the continental flavour imparted by the mansard roof and Italianate-styled windows.

But whatever the source of this feeling might be, there is an undeniable presence about this architecture that makes most folks stop and stare.

Regionally, Niagara is blessed by a good number of stellar Second Empire homes that were designed and built as full expressions of the style.

Popular in North America between 1860 and 1890, Second Empire homes often incorporated Italianate and Gothic elements, but the mansard roof truly defined the style. The mansard was a two-sloped hipped roof that created a full upper storey which was typically finished but still defined as an “attic” (at a time when attics were exempt from tax).

Almost without exception, dormer windows with decorated surrounds were set in the lower slope, often against a decorative pattern of multi-coloured slate roof tile. Many of the surviving Niagara houses possess a tower (or faux tower) on the facade which rises to break the main mansard roof line and can (as shown in this photo) have a different roof silhouette. These homes seem to soar skyward, unabashedly proud of their embellishments.

So, is Second Empire styling absent from NOTL?

No, there are buildings after the Second Empire style, however likely none are “as-built.” There are a couple of mansard-roofed vernacular cottages but there is strong evidence to suggest the roofs were later renovations.

Randwood, impressive though it might be, is also an 1870s large-scale facelift to Second Empire from its original Regency style. The Prince of Wales? It, too, was retrofitted to Second Empire in the 1870s when it was still the Long Hotel.

Interestingly, this last reno may provide a clue in explaining the scarcity of design-built Second Empire homes in town.

To underwrite the hotel renovation one of the owners, Frederick Date, took a mortgage on his home; a home he eventually lost when an economic recession that began in 1873, compounded by a run on Wall Street in 1884, hit both tourism dollars and general business revenues.

Second Empires were expensive to build when money, for most, would have been very tight.

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