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Roof Lines Shaped by Taxes

All across Cambridge and Somerville, you’re likely to find examples of Mansard style roofs. Named after French architect François Mansart and sometimes called a French or curb roof, a Mansard roof is a four-sided gambrel roof. The bottom slope that’s interrupted by dormers is very steep, and it can be found straight, concave, convex, or s-shaped. The upper slope is very shallow and is often difficult to see from street level. 

The benefit of the design is that it can squeeze an additional level of living area in what is considered to be attic space. But why not just add another story? The answer: regulation. In the late 18th century in France, homeowners were taxed based on the number of stories in their houses, but that didn’t include attic space below the roofline. In 1783 in Paris specifically, there was a 20-meter height restriction that measured only up to the cornice line. Resourceful Parisians quickly fell in love with the Mansard roof to maximize the habitable space below. 

Laws eventually changed in Paris such that this specific strategy became less effective over time, but the design spread around the world to America. In 1916, when New York City passed its first zoning regulations that called for setbacks on large buildings, some architects turned to multi-story Mansard roofs as an elegant solution. Across the United States and throughout Cambridge, Mansard roofs can be found on homes and buildings of all sizes.

Photo of New York City courtesy of Ad Meskens



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