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Second Empire Style

Posted: 10/17/2011

 Knightstown Academy, Henry County
Knightstown Academy (1876) is a gorgeous example of the Second Empire style. The globe and telescope topping the academy's towers are said to have been school founder John Irwin Morris's idea, to symbolically convey the majesty and importance of education. (Photo: Mark Sean Orr)

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Of all the architectural styles, probably none suffers more unfair insult than Second Empire. Not familiar with the style? You’ll recognize it in a horror-movie heartbeat.


Imagine the quintessential haunted house: big and dark, a tower, a steeply sloped roof. It’s the house Charles Addams drew for his charmingly creepy family. It’s the house on the hill in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Once Norman Bates took up residence, there was no going back. Second Empire became the preferred haunted house style.


It’s unfair type-casting.


The style takes its name from the reign of Louis Napoleon, whose Second Empire lasted from 1852 to 1870. Its hallmark is the mansard roof, popularized by French architect Francois Mansart in the seventeenth century. A mansard is gambrel hip roof with two slopes on each side, one very steep and one shallow. The steep slope and dormer windows make the attic more usable. 


Second Empire enjoyed popularity in America from roughly 1860 to 1880, taking root just prior to the Civil War and flourishing in the prosperity of the Reconstruction. When the style fell out of vogue, many of Indiana’s Second Empire buildings fell to the wrecking ball.


Today, the relatively rare Second Empire style survivors get more respect, in spite of the haunted house association. The state owns the Culbertson Mansion in New Albany. The Morris-Butler House in Indianapolis was the first building restored by Indiana Landmarks, in the 1960s. Both houses are museums open to the public. The most unusual Indiana example may be Knightstown Academy with its twin globe and telescope-topped towers. Repurposed as senior housing, it’s a beloved landmark, and not one bit scary.


Learn more:


Second Empire on Wikipedia


Morris-Butler House

History, tours, events

From Dark Pages mystery play


Culbertson Mansion

Visitor information

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