What Is a Mansard Roof, Anyway?

updated May 10, 2024
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Standing on the sidewalk looking up at a Victorian home, you probably know there are major design elements that make it different from other kinds of houses. But could you name them?

One conspicuous characteristic that sets it apart from the rest is its roof. If you’ve ever bopped along to a song of the same name by Vampire Weekend, you might have an idea of what this kind of roof is called: a mansard roof.

For amateur architecture buffs, they can feel like a “you know it when you see it” type of trait. But there’s more to mansard roofs than meets the eye. Here’s how mansard roofs came to be — and how to tell which roofs are mansard roofs.

Credit: Susan Law Cain/Shutterstock.com

What is a mansard roof?

A mansard roof, by definition, is a roof with four sloping sides. Unlike a two-sided gabled roof (the kind of roof that a kindergartener might draw), a mansard roof is hipped, which means that its four sections, of roughly the same shape, tilt downward toward the walls. Two opposing sides of a mansard roof usually have a steeper slope than their adjacent faces.

Mansard roofs can be tiled or shingled. They often feature dormer windows, letting light into the attics of buildings and allowing for additional living space to be created on the top level. 

Credit: Miles Nelson/Shutterstock.com

What architectural styles have mansard roofs?

The mansard roof style can be traced back to buildings in Italy and England in the 16th century, though the Louvre, built in 1793, is often cited with its first-ever appearance. The look was eventually named for the French Baroque architect François Mansart, who topped Parisian hotels and countryside chateaus with the roof, per Britannica.

Later, the roof shape became popular in Victorian architecture. Second Empire homes in particular, a type of Victorian popularized in the U.S. the mid-19th century, were defined by their distinctive mansard roofs. These roofs were revived in France during the reign of Napoleon III, also known as France’s Second Empire, which gave the style its name. 

Second Empire design was employed in major public buildings in America. The Charity Hospital in New York City and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., both completed by architect James Renwick, served as catalysts for its popularity in civic buildings. According to “The Field Guide to American Houses,” the architectural style fell out of favor after the panic of 1873 and the economic depression that followed.

Different types of mansard roofs

While all roofs of this style have a similar appearance, the sides of the mansard roofs come in different shapes, each with its own unique charm. The most common types of mansard roofs are:

  • Straight: A mansard roof with sides that have little-to-no curveature
  • Convex: The sides of these roofs curve outwards with no flare
  • Concave: A roof with sides that curve in and flare out along the bottom
  • S-Shaped: The most complex type of mansard roof where the side of the roof has a concave curve at the top that curves into a convex shape before connecting to the rest of the home with a straight line

Where to find mansard roofs

Mansard roofs are most commonly found in France, but examples can be found throughout the US. If you’re looking to see an example in person, you’re likely to have the best luck in areas with older homes built before the style fell out of favor in 1873. Historical “old town” areas in cities settled before the 20th century are most likely to have these roofs than other locations.

Mansard roofs are notably less common on the West Coast since it was settled later than much of the East Coast and Midwest, and the great majority of buildings were constructed after the late half of the 1800s.

Even in areas that once had mansard roofs though, many will have since been torn down and replaced. So finding these roofs in large areas, such as New York City, may be difficult, though not impossible.

What are the advantages of a mansard roof?

There’s one main advantage to a building with a mansard roof: it maximizes the space of a building’s attic, allowing for an easy way to add another level of living space without requiring more siding or masonry.

“The upper boxy roof line was considered particularly functional because it permitted a full upper story of usable living area or attic space. For this reason, the style became popular for the remodeling of earlier buildings as well as for new construction,” writes Virgina Savage McAleester in “A Field Guide to American Houses.”

Some experts argue that mansard roofs were created in part to circumvent zoning restrictions. A Parisian law enacted in the late 1700s, for example, restricted the height of buildings to 65 feet. At the time, building heights were only measured up to the cornice line (or below where the roof began), meaning that the living space within a mansard roof didn’t count toward the total measurement.

Could you pick a mansard roof out of a lineup armed with this knowledge? Try it out on your next walk.