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2nd Empire - The Classic Haunted House Architectural Style


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I tried this topic a couple of months ago, but maybe my original title was too enigmatic. I'm also thinking since Halloween is tomorrow maybe some more people will be interested.


What is a more iconic symbol of Halloween that haunted houses, and the stereotypical haunted house is Second Empire. So, I was wondering, anyone know of any original Second Empire-style houses still standing in Houston? Pics, addresses, and bonus points if any of them are reputed to be haunted.


Also, a great article on how Second Empire came to be the iconic style for haunted houses:




Horror Style: Why Second Empire Scares You

October 30, 2012 by: Samuel Scheib


A sunset walk in the 5th District of Budapest, just a couple streets away from Heroes’ Square and the National Museum, is an awfully pleasant way to spend a fall evening, so I was surprised when my delight at the 19th century streetscape turned decidedly to the creeps.  The silence around me was not the eerie, too-quiet kind.  In fact, it was not really silent as the muted bustle of the city could be heard a few blocks away.  There was nothing among the cast iron gates and moribund cars hugging the curb to explain why the hairs on my arm were standing at rapt attention.  The reason, I later discovered, was the French.


Louis Napoleon, nephew of Bonaparte, ruled France from 1849 to 1870, first as president, elected by the virtue of his name alone, and then as emperor beginning in 1852, thus launching the Second Empire.  Louis Napoleon directed Baron von Haussmann to rebuild swaths of medieval Paris and he did so in an elegant style typified by tall buildings with elaborately bracketed cornices and dormers projecting from the double-hipped roofs.  The lower pitch of these so-called mansard roofs tended to be almost vertical, doubling as a wall for the useable interior space and was covered with patterned, multi-colored slate tiles; the upper pitch was unseen, either flat or slightly sloping, and often trimmed with a cast iron widow’s walk.


Students of planning or architecture are likely familiar with the distinctive Second Empire style that was popular the world over until the late 19th century.  If you are not familiar with the grace and elegance of the style that originated in Haussmann’s Paris, then you at least know it as the haunted house.  Norman’s house in Psycho plus the houses in countless other movies like The Changeling and Beetlejuice, television programs The Addams Family and The Munsters, the Disney haunted mansions, including, ironically, the one in Paris, and even children’s Halloween decorations all feature the familiar Mansard roof and dormers of the Second Empire; those iron spikes on top lend themselves nicely to the horror oeuvre.  My walk in Budapest featured my own indoctrination into the fear of these old houses.   

Steven Kurutz explored the haunted house this week in a New York Times article, “No Rest for the Eerie.” He portrays the house as a sanctuary and an intrusion on the security of the home as the source of terror.  He uses the Paranormal Activity franchise, with the fourth in the series recently released, as an example.  These films don’t use blood and gore to frighten.  Oren Peli, the creator of the movies is quoted in the article as saying “the gasping [of some unseen being] confirms that any kind of evidence that something is inside your house is a very unsettling feeling.”   It should be no surprise that we in the United States have the Castle Doctrine which allows a homeowner to use deadly force on an intruder for just such a breach of the old homestead.

I agree that the home invasion is scary; it is almost a cliché that after being burgled a homeowner feels “violated” and no longer safe at home.  But I think there is a reason so many of these haunted houses stick with a particular architectural vernacular.  Second Empire became synonymous with the reign of Louis Napoleon and even as he fled to England after his disastrous defeat at the hands of the Prussian Army, Second Empire houses were still gaining popularity in the United States.  Then came a succession of disasters for these big old houses:  the Panic of 1893 led to nearly 20% unemployment, with another panic in 1907, then the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 limited immigration (big old houses needed lots of staff), then World War I.  Worst of all, tastes changed in response to these forces and the small craftsman bungalow became America’s preferred style in the early 20th century.

By the time Wall Street crashed in 1929 the U.S.’s Second Empire (along with other Victorian) homes were at or nearing their 50thbirthdays and America was broke.  These are precious, intricate buildings that require tremendous upkeep and as the 30s and the Great Depression wore on and as the U.S. entered, fought, and won World War II, the old houses fell into terrible disrepair.  After the war, we wanted new stuff.  While the Germans rebuilt Berlin, Dresden, and other war-torn cities, America ignored our urban cores and built the suburbs.


While the immediate post war years were hard on Italianate, Gothic, Queen Anne and other gingerbread houses, the Second Empire style had a particular problem: its origins were decidedly urban.  The Champs Elysees is a Second Empire street.  Like a popular clique in high school, Second Empire buildings are powerful in groups but seem exposed when alone.  As one author put it, “In rural settings the elegantly fashionable architecture was likely to seem out of place, like an overdressed lady on a picnic.”  It is no surprise then that the ailing Second Empire house sitting awkwardly by itself became Hollywood’s ideal house of horror.  Edward Hopper—of Nightwatch fame—may have single-handedly set the pattern with his lonely House by the Railroad from 1925 as seen at the top of this article.

I am endlessly charmed by the steep pitch and dormers of a Mansard roof and so the horror fascination of the Second Empire style saddens me.  But what comes around goes around.  We are several years now into the prediction that the slums of the future—as energy prices rise, as the population ages and needs better access to services, and as cultural preferences shift to urban housing—will be in the suburbs.   And as Kurutz pointed out in his Times story, Paranormal Activity 4 “mines horror from everyday life in a suburban tract home.”

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The Second Empire style never really took off in Houston, and there were only two or three examples that were built in Houston that I could think of.    They were all built on Main Street downtown and were already gone by the 1930's.    I read somewhere that the Second Empire style was identified with the North and Houstonians during the late 19th century still harbored a grudge against the north for winning the War Between the States, and refused to build anything with a style that indentified with the North.

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Thanks Fillioscotia, but at least the pictures in the article aren't Second Empire. I see Italianate, Queen Anne (with Eastlake), Folk Victorian, which jibes with what I have seen driving through the Heights and Montrose. Sixthwardguy, thanks for the information, makes a lot of sense, especially Southern antipathy for Northern styles during reconstruction and just after.

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I've enjoyed reading this topic, thanks to all... I can't recall ever seeing any of the spooky style, growing up in the Bayou City. I would guess the Montrose area, with its little pockets of hidden coves and narrow, winding streets would be a place to find any survivors. 

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Second empire was popularized in the US by the building of the Philadelphia city hall, on the citys central square. It became the model for the central square courthouse across the nation. We have several in Texas, such as Lampasas.They were called in the midwest General Grant courthouses, because they were popular in the building boom of the 1870s, and the Texas ones come in about the time the carpetbagger railroads arrive after the civilwar. Consequently, it was not a popular style, and I agree that Houston would have had very few, if any. perhaps some in San Antonio or Dallas or even Fort Worth. The style mainly shows up in courthouses, and most of them are mediocre examples of the style.

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On 10/31/2014 at 10:16 AM, sixthwardguy said:

 I read somewhere that the Second Empire style was identified with the North and Houstonians during the late 19th century still harbored a grudge against the north for winning the War Between the States, and refused to build anything with a style that indentified with the North.


The more I think about this, the more I think this reasoning can't be correct. Second Empire architecture was actually very popular in Texas after the Civil War, especially for courthouses, such as:

Caldwell County (Lockhart) built 1894

Crockett County (Ozona) built 1902

Fannin County (Bonham) built 1889 (originally in Second Empire, but extensively remodeled in 1965 to Moderne style)

Hood County (Granbury) built 1891


Houston's Harris County Jail at 403 Caroline Street, built 1879, was a classic Second Empire building.


And then to show that Second Empire wasn't just for public buildings, there is the Fulton Mansion in Fulton (near Rockport), built in 1877.


I'd definitely be interested in finding out about Second Empire residential structures in the Houston area, past or surviving, if anyone knows of any. I have heard of one that was an excellent and expansive example, though sadly long since demolished, it was on Main at Jefferson. It was called the Charles Shearn House House (I didn't stutter, a family with the last name "House" owned it). Built in 1882 and demolished in 1920.

Edited by Reefmonkey
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Look for a copy of Houston's Forgotten Heritage: Landscape, Houses, Interiors, 1824-1914 by Dorothy Knox Howe Houghton, Barrie M. Scardino Bradley, Katherine S. Howe, and Sadie Gwin Blackburn for possible examples of Second Empire houses in Houston. I'm sure the book is available on Amazon and in some of the public libraries in the area. 

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