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This home style has a pretty, scary past. Ask Scooby-Doo.

From ‘Psycho’ to ‘Stranger Things,’ the stunning Second Empire home style plays a sinister on-screen role. Does it deserve it?

The "Paul Howland House" at 91 State St. in New Bedford is a stunning example of the beauty of Second Empire architecture. The home dates to 1877, and it is believed to have been built by mason and builder Paul Howland, according to the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System. "Numerous pedimented dormers project from the mansard roof and elaborate carved brackets are found along the cornice line."Photo: David L. Ryan/Globe Staff; Illustration: Ally Rzesa/Globe staff

Consider it the “things that go bump in the night” of residential architecture.

The imposing Second Empire is a mainstay in spooky movies and television shows. Have you checked out Creel House in “Stranger Things?” The steep slopes of its mansard roof and other common touches like an imposing tower and large windows can make the Second Empire veer into the intimidating — especially if it comes with a dormer or two.

All the better to hide someone — or something — in the attic.

The architectural style is nearly as synonymous with horror as Wes Craven when it comes to on-screen spookiness. The architectural style appears in “Psycho,” “The Addams Family,” “The Munsters,” and even the opening credits of “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?”


A scene from Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960).Marie-Claire Patin

The timing of each of these hits just happened to follow decades of the building style going out of favor in the United States.

“By the time ‘Psycho’ and a lot of other scary movies became very popular, the Second Empire style was seen as stodgy and old-fashioned,” said Eleni Glekas, director of historic preservation at Boston Architectural College’s School of Design Studies. “Buildings can look kind of scary and weird if they haven’t been maintained in a while. If you see a home with peeling paint, the shutters might be hanging off to one side, or if it just doesn’t look like it’s in great shape, that immediately can evoke a feeling of spookiness or that something’s not right on the inside.”

It’s a long way to fall for a housing style with a royal pedigree.

The style got its grandiose, imperial name during the Second French Empire of Emperor Napoleon III. The Second Empire, known for combining several styles, moved across the Atlantic and exploded in popularity in post-Civil War America.


“Toward the end of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was booming. A lot of people were making money off that, and a way to showcase that wealth was to build a fancy home,” Glekas said. “In order to showcase this new wealth, you wanted to build in the latest European style. Second Empire and Beaux Arts styles were very popular in Europe, particularly in France.”

But much like shag carpeting and waterbeds, Second Empire had a design shelf life. It fell out of favor in the 20th century and was seen as stodgy and a sign of the prior century’s excess. Many of these Second Empire homes and public buildings fell into disrepair — adding fuel to their haunted house reputation.

“It would be easier for a filmmaker to put a scary thriller movie in a house like that than in some kind of 1950s ranch house or some sleek 1960s design house in Palm Springs,” Glekas added.

But the home appeals to more than Norman Bates. There are multiple Facebook groups for Second Empire homeowners (and fans), with thousands of members apiece signing in from across the country to tout the architectural magic of these properties.

Kevin Parker, a Brookfield-based sound engineer, bought his Second Empire in 2013 after owning two Victorians. He views the grandiose, almost formidable style of his Second Empire as a draw, not a spooky deterrent.

“Even among Victorian architecture, it’s a visually unique subset,” Parker said. “You see a Second Empire, you basically know it.”


Kevin Parker's Brookfield home features arch-topped dormers and gorgeous quoining on its edges.Kevin Parker
His boxer, Brys (pronounced "Breesh"), stands sentry in the main hall, which boasts stunning door trim.Kevin Parker
The dining room has crown molding, a fireplace, and period lighting.Kevin Parker

Of course, some people like the idea of a home with a hint of spookiness.

Todd Parker (no relation to Kevin) lives in a Second Empire in Douglas. He appreciates the architectural significance of the home style, but likes the idea of maintaining a little of its sinister vibe.

“The house was painted not too long ago, but when we do look to repaint it, I’m going to be pushing for a gray,” he joked.

Some Second Empires don’t give off that vibe at all.

“Maybe it’s all the windows or the uniqueness of the way that the roofline looks, but at the time when I bought the house, I didn’t consider [the scary connotation] at all,” said Laura Parrish, who along with her husband, Tom Lavin, owns an Italianate-Second Empire in New Bedford — the former residence of Herman Melville’s sister.

“Maybe I was just blind with love.”

Laura Parrish and Tom Lavin now own a Second Empire that belonged to author Herman Melville's sister.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Their dining room reflects the grandeur of the time period and the home style's royal beginnings.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Parrish bought the home, named “The Whalehouse,” in 2015 and transformed it into a popular vacation rental. The property even served as a backdrop in the AMC thriller “Invitation to a Bonfire.”

Neighbors and guests say there’s a ghost that climbs the stairs, but there’s only one thing the owners of this historic home find spooky: its lack of energy efficiency.

The Whalehouse has 14 heating zones, and Parrish’s first heating bill was enough to give even Wednesday Addams nightmares. After coming to terms with that and dealing with burst pipes and even a collapsed basement ceiling, she finally got into the groove of maintaining and renovating her home.


“I felt genuinely so overwhelmed and had the biggest buyer’s remorse you could ever feel, but once I got past that and talked with a few people, I started to feel a little bit less overwhelmed,” Parrish said. “Everybody feels that way.”

Second Empire homes can be labors of architectural love, especially when you are confronted with years of neglect.

“It’s kind of like the Brooklyn Bridge where it’s always under some sort of state of repair,” Kevin Parker, from Brookfield, said with a laugh. “You finish the front half of the house, and now you move on to the back.”

The tower is an element of Victorian architecture, but the Second Empire kicks the elegance up a notch. Pictured, the "General Lincoln Benjamin House" at 93 State St. in New Bedford, which was built in 1845, and later purchased by Mayor Charles S. Ashley in 1893, according to the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System. The dormers and entryways are just as elaborate as the tower.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
The mansard roof, seen dotted with dormers here at 150 Eighth St. in New Bedford, is a ubiquitous element of the Second Empire architectural style. The Benjamin S. and William J. Rotch Building dates to 1845, and was originally only two stories high, according to the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Window pairings, like the ones seen here on the house at 29 Arch St. in New Bedford, are common in homes of this style. The home, known as the "John Gibson House," dates to 1875, according to the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
The "Thomas Bush Tripp House" at 141 Allen St. in New Bedford was built in 1875 by Thomas Bush Tripp, a former grocer-turned-real estate and railroad magnate and state representative. The home has a projecting tower over the the front entrance that is supported by an elaborate balcony and entryway, according to a report in the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
The "Gilbert Russell House" at 405 County St. in New Bedford dates to 1805 was was known as "one of the most genteel residences" in the city, according to the Massachusetts Cultural Information Resource System. "The present appearance of this mansion is the result of rebuilding between 1868-1876 of an old Colonial home. Wooden quoins, ogee hooded windows, eave brackets, arcaded facades, and an octagonal cupola are among the many outstanding details of this home," which also reflects the Italianate architectural style. The home is on the market for $1,050,000. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
The "Samuel Ivers House" at 448 County St. in New Bedford was built in 1879 and has served as a home, office, funeral home, a multifamily, and a parochial school, according to the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System. Ivers, who worked in whale oil and candle manufacturing, was one of the three men who helped introduce the first commercial telephone system to the city, according to MACRIS. "Although a Second Empire mansard roof is the salient feature of this house, there are numerous Italianate details incorporated."David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
The "Elijah R. Lewis" house at 321 Union St. in New Bedford is an Italianate Second Empire that dates to 1879. It now serves as a multifamily home. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
The "Edward Haskell House" at 345 Union St. in New Bedford dates to 1868 and was built for a dry goods merchant, according to the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information Center, which noted the home's variety of window caps, the ornamental balustrade above the eaves, projecting dormers, and elaborate entranceway.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

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