Ah, the Mansard roof! A wood-frame house with a cherry on top. I must admit, I love ALL Mansard roofs, no matter the house material. Though they are by no means unique to wooden houses, there is something about finding this high-style feature adapted to the vernacular frame house that makes me smile. But what is the genesis of this much-beloved architectural element?
Gingerbread in the South Slope
A mansard roof in a nutshell: The pitch of the roof is designed with a slight slope and – at least in the case of wooden houses in Brooklyn – nearly always includes slate tiles over a wood frame. Sometimes, the stacked slate tiles include beautiful polychromatic patterned tiles, adding a rich texture. All of these features contribute to the “crowning” effect. The name “mansard” comes from the French architect Francois Mansart who covered Paris’ skyline with these beauties during the 17th century.
While we do not have the exact date of the first mansard roof to hit New York City, the real height of the trend came in the late 1860s around the time of the construction of the Grand Hotel on Broadway & 31st Street in 1868. The historian Christopher Gray wrote about the mansard’s heyday in a New York Times article in 2011 and noted an early mansard found on a wood-frame house dating from 1864 in today’s East Harlem. I love the quote Gray found from architect/builder George Woodward in 1867 who described the Mansard roof as “a real blessing” to the arduous task of designing cornices and flat roofs in urban architecture.
Beautiful Mansard roofs in Fort Greene
As we’ve discussed in previous posts, fire limits restricted some neighborhoods in Brooklyn from building wood-frame houses as early as 1852 (Brooklyn Heights was the first neighborhood to adopt such laws). Thus, mansard roofs found on wooden houses in these neighborhoods are most certainly later additions. While mansard roofs can be found on many different styles of architecture (Queen Anne, Romanesque, Italianate), most wood-frame houses with mansard roofs can generally be labeled as Second Empire.
Like the wood-frame rowhouse in Brooklyn, mansard rooves were eventually labeled as “conflagrations” in urban centers. The city of Boston in the mid 19th century contained many mansards, and people pointed to the cheaper made wood-frame mansards as contributing to the great losses caused by the fire of 1872. But lucky for us mansard-fanatics, this feature would sneak back up in the late-19th and early-20th centuries during the height of Beaux Arts architecture.
Readers: Be our scavengers! See a wood-frame house with a mansard roof? Comment with an address, send us a tweet, or instagram with #woodenhouseproject so we can record where these houses are located.