Welcome to the Curbed series Learn Something where we discover the story behind one architectural feature common to our city.
Many of the District's Federal style houses have 'em and so do plenty of the Beaux Arts ones too. These not-very-pointy tops of buildings are called Mansard roofs after the French guy who developed them and they've stuck around because they're a practical way to add height to a building at a lower cost. Little did the French guy know that two hundred years later an indie band called Vampire Weekend would pen a song titled Mansard Roof that has had over two million views on YouTube. We have the proof after the jump.
The characteristic two-slope roof profile on one side has a steeper angle on the lower portion and a flatter angle on the upper portion. The name derives from Francois Mansart, the famous French architect, who popularized this design and was also the uncle of Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the architect who best represented the power and grandeur of Louis XIV and the French empire. This style made a comeback during the second French Empire of the 1850s when many French-educated American architects implemented this for wealthy Americans.
There are also many practical reasons to employ this style other that to exude wealth and class. Construction-wise is is an easy way to add an extra level for an attic or garret living space without using masonry or any long pieces of timber. Also during the early 1900s zoning laws mandated setbacks on tall buildings. Many people believe the popularization of the Mansard roof is because it allowed people to circumvent city height limits due to the fact that laws only counted full stories or to the top of the cornice. This enabled some builders to maximize the lot, possibly evade the setback laws, and in some cases dodge higher taxes because the buildings were classified as lower than they actually were.
—Vaclav Malek, architectural designer
Video from YouTube