For a good part of our nation’s history, we have been in love with many things French. This was especially true throughout the last quarter of the 18th and all of the 19th centuries.
In fact, the average American has taken for granted the extent to which the French influenced our nation in government, language, fine arts and architecture. It is this last category to which we will turn our attention as our city boasts a truly fine example of French Second Empire architecture.
The Historic General Dodge House is a textbook example of this style in its size, grandeur, details and attendant history. This house is the jewel of our city and, arguably, the most important piece of real estate in all of western Iowa. If you’ve not visited the Dodge House lately, it’s time. Not only can you experience the colorful history of Council Bluff’s most famed citizen, Grenville Dodge, you can enjoy the home’s lavish and opulent contents and appreciate the grand style of Second Empire architecture.
Specifically, the term “Second Empire” is a reference to the reign of Napoleon III (1852-1870). During this time, under his personal direction, parts of Paris were demolished and rebuilt with wide avenues and the monumental buildings tourists see today. This style was considered both grand, modern and worthy of imitation. The style was very popular in the northeast and Midwest and less so in the South and the Pacific Coast.
When General Dodge hired a famous Chicago architect William Boyington to design his home, he wanted to make a statement, and it is not surprising that this fashionable style was selected. Boyington left his mark on many of Chicago’s most significant buildings, most of which were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1871. (The Chicago Water Tower survives.) Boyington also designed Terrace Hill, Iowa Governor’s Residence, also an historic landmark.
Perhaps the most notable feature of Second Empire style is the mansard roof which was introduced in the 17th century by French architect Francois Mansart.
The dual-pitched hipped roof with windows at the base of the surround projecting from the roof provide an elegant grandness. (Its volume also allowed attic space to be utilized efficiently.) It was common to use slate shingles, often in patterns to protect the roof, today the original slate has been replaced by more conventional materials. (You can purchase an original slate shingle with an image of the Dodge House engraved in it during your next visit.)
Providing for the separation between the roof and the walls are decorated brackets that seem to support every element above with the help of bold cornices.
As with most Second Empire Homes, the Dodge House is square and symmetrical contributing to its monumental quality. Unlike Terrance Hill in Des Moines, there is no tower on the Dodge House, but a solarium on the first floor with a sleeping porch above on the second floor rounds out the southwest corner of the home with the effect of making the home’s presentation warmer and softer in character.
The masonry walls showcase the second floor windows. In the Second Empire style, the windows were almost always of the Italianate style. At the Dodge House the windows are “hooded” by flattened decorative arches that extend several inches and are richly ornamented. In a Second Empire home, the front entrance was never in doubt and was always presented in a bold fashion.
Typical of the style, the Dodge House has a large double door with the first floor being elevated above ground level, compelling the visitor to ascend to the entrance; thus, walking up to the home is an experience rather than a typical approach.
The large porch you see is not original. The original porch, while restrained in size and height featured beveled supports with elaborated detail at the top — almost gothic in style. The current porch was added in the early 20th century by the daughters of General Dodge. It features a combination of Italianate and colonial influences.
Sadly, the majority of Second Empire homes in Omaha and Council Bluffs were raised as both downtowns expanded, replacing residential homes with businesses and warehouses. The second-best example of the style in Council Bluffs is the Lysander Tulleys home, but is arguably more Gothic in style than Second Empire. The most notable Second Empire survivor in Omaha is the Cornish House on South 10th Street (just south of downtown) which has been converted into apartments.
This leaves the Dodge House as the best example of this once wide-spread architectural style in the whole of the metro area.
— Tom Emmett is the executive director of the Historic General Dodge House.