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.
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.
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 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.
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."
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