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The Mansards
The sign The sign The sign The sign The sign The sign The sign The sign The sign

Like art deco, the 20th Century mansard style was reviled in its original flowering. But also like art deco, the passage of time is treating it kindly.

That's not to say the two are aesthetic equals. Where deco ultimately proved to be just as high in style as it aspired to be, mansardism's ambition barely reached middlebrow. But like deco in the early days of its revival, the mansard look is becoming interesting as period piece.

The American mansard revival originated in the 1960s among oil companies aiming to replace their moderne gas station architecture with an earthier look. But it was McDonald's that should be credited with the mansard roof's proliferation.

The mansard McDonalds
McDonald's Ray Kroc had decided that his original drive-up restaurants were becoming eyesores. The company chose a new flared roof, not technically mansard but close enough for the untrained eye, that seemed to communicate a more wholesome message than the rooftop arches it replaced. The appeal of that message was not lost on other architects, builders and their customers -- and the mansard became ubiquitous on American shopping strips.

Although the intention was to add class by echoing a 19th Century French style, the look quickly became synonymous with fast-service roadside schlock. The effectiveness of this symbolism made it especially perverse when remodelers and homebuilders starting slapping on mansards to add nuance and class to residential designs. This benighted sensibility was perfect architectural fodder for those unabashedly ironic decades that followed the 1970s. These buildings put humor in the landscape directly proportionate to how close their roofs hung to the ground.

The sign The sign The sign The sign The sign The sign The sign The sign The sign
But times have changed. The mansard now looks like just an earlier step on the way to the slick but vapid styles that dominate new-home architecture today: repro Victorian and ersatz chateau. That early clumsiness is one reason the mansards of the '70s and '80s are beginning to seem charming. There is a certain na´ve energy in their pioneering pastiche, an energy lacking in today's more refined, self-serious travesties of architectural aspiration. Plus, obsolescence is a great redeemer of aesthetic junk. Those 20- and 30-year-old mansards have gained resonance as emblems of a lost time, even a certain lost innocence (innocence of taste, anyway).

It's hard to say which part of the country led the way, but the Chicago area played a leading role in the mansard craze. Kroc opened his prototype sit-down restaurant, with what its architect called a "double mansard" design, on Lincoln Highway in Matteson, Illinois, in 1969. That shining example (coincidentally the primary McDonald's of my own youth) helped bring a mansardian abundance to Chicago's suburbs.

The look reached its Chicagoland apotheosis not in actual buildings but in a mostly surplus appendage. Mansard signs, over-decorated with non-functional roofs, amount to pure style, with a small s - style as defined by real estate brokers, insurance agents and steakhouse owners. Corporate McDonald's may have helped originate it, but mansardism became a true vernacular, executed by folks who believed the mansard was just the thing to add substance and distinction, even better when the sign matched the building it advertised.

The sign The sign The sign The sign The sign
Mansard signs once stretched along most of Chicagoland's shopping strips. Highly perishable, though, they are disappearing. Contemporary style (and economics) don't encourage such flourishes. When the signs are renovated or replaced the roofs come off. My hope is to give them the recognition they deserve before they disappear entirely.

The black-and-white photos on these pages were shot nearly 20 years ago, when mansard signage was at its peak. The color photography is recent, and includes a few non-mansard executions of the lidded sign. I've also included some favorite mansard buildings -- the pair in my 19th Century neighborhood look fairly ridiculous in their context, but they are becoming quaint in spite of themselves.

The mansard house The mansard garage The mansard garage The mansard fairy tale

Notes: Information on McDonald's and the rise of mansardism is from Orange Roofs, Golden Arches by Philip Langdon. Other background on mansardism is from Main Street to Miracle Mile by Chester H. Liebs. Says Liebs: "Unlike the Victorian mansard, the modern versions are usually cosmetic appliques rather than integral parts of a structure's roof.... The new mansards proved extremely versatile disguises for toning down the visual persona of wayside vending." Liebs cites an argument that the modern mansard style originated in Texas and Florida, though he noted (in 1985) that more research was needed to determine where it actually took root. He quotes another author, Arthur J. Krim, who wrote in 1977, "It was found that the clear trapezoidal form of the 'French Provincial' mansard roof seemed to provide a domestic scale and secure form to the barren edges of the apartment blocks and tract houses."

Lidded sign Lidded sign

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