The Second Empire Style of Architecture in Port Huron

[This post was last updated on March 13th, 2017]

I love the Second Empire style of architecture.  I can’t say for sure why I like it so much, but I imagine it might be due to these attributes of the style:  solid homes often of brick; funky mansard roofs with many ornate dormers (the roof and dormers very often combine square and curvilinear elements, which is something I’m attracted to when it comes to design), and; basically, an overall look that is especially distinctive when it comes to architecture.  A lot of houses have shared and varied style features, but Second Empire is usually just that–Second Empire (or, as referred to historically, “French Roofed” or “Mansard Roof”). Many houses, through time, lose their stylistic features because those features were really just ornament and are eventually removed, but with Second Empire, much of its distinctiveness comes from the structure itself.

Port Huron, having either attracted or grown a population of wealthy-enough persons to afford building in the new and popular style from Paris, seems to have had a goodly number of handsome Second Empire buildings (we’ll not likely to ever know how many were actually built, however).  The Second Empire style began in the 1850s, but it really took off in the United States after the Civil War.  It was the rage to construct government buildings in this style, and fashion-conscious home builders caught the bug.  It may be that it was the most widely built house style during the decade of the 1870s, and it was most popular in the East and Midwest (it is rare in the South).  It was a strong representative of the “Age of Enterprise” (or “Age of Energy”), 1865-1885, although most architects felt it old-fashioned by 1876.  This period was significant to Port Huron’s growth, as it was in so many other places in the US; it was the time when fortunes were made.

But that era is long gone, and, unfortunately, so are most of the Second Empire buildings that the era represented.  Even worse, the best examples of the style are the ones that have been destroyed.  It’s important, then, for us to search for ways to ensure that the remaining examples are preserved.  Below are images of known Second Empire buildings in Port Huron; as a complete survey of Port Huron and the adjacent municipalities has not been done, any Second Empire homes that you, the reader, can point out to PHAHPA will be added here and to our inventory (and we’d highly value any suggestions or information you provide!).

Second Empire Buildings that are now Gone

The original City-County building, built 1873 (the county seat moved from St. Clair to Port Huron in 1871). Wings were added and Second Empire style elements removed (unfortunately) in 1896, and it was razed after a fire in 1949. (From 1876 Standard Atlas of St. Clair County, p 3.)

The older center of the original city county building, 1946. The photo brings out details that the drawing above, and even old black & white photos, don’t really bring out.  From the Sawyer Collection, Port Huron Museum.

Water Works building, constructed in 1872 (from Art Work of St. Clair County, 1893, no page).

A xerox copy (of what generation?) of a photo of the Johnstone-Reed house, now gone (except for some portions that were integrated into the American Legion hall that now sits at the Sixth and Wall streets property) (on file in the Michigan Room, St. Clair County Public Library).

The Johnstone house as depicted in the county’s 1876 atlas (p 26).

James Goulden house that used to stand on the west side of Pine Grove Avenue at Glenwood. I just adore (love!) this house, yet it’s gone, and for nothing; an abandoned and ugly gas station had replaced it. What does this say about our culture?

The Goulden House as depicted in the 1876 county atlas (p 6).

317 Seventh St, Port Huron, demolished

1317 Seventh Street, Port Huron. The Catholic church that demolished it, which is on an adjacent lot, even took over the address of this razed house.  This stood within the local Olde Town Historic District.

This home was located just north of Chestnut Street, on the east side of Military Street (1326), and was apparently built by Henry Howard of the Howard Lumber Company (Bob Davis, personal communication March 10, 2017, and 1898 Sanborn Fire Insurance map, page 13).   (Image from the 1897 booklet, “A Greeting from Port Huron, Michigan,” p 22).   The Women’s Life Insurance Society building is there now, itself a historic structure.  At the present it isn’t known if they razed the Howard house to build their structure, or if it had burned.  If it was demolished, then I opine that that would represent a sad situation.  Either reuse irreplaceable structures, or build elsewhere.

The McMorran Murphy house/mansion, which used to stand on south Military Street. Astoundingly, demolished by nuns after it was charitably donated to them. Arguably the finest historic house in Port Huron, simply razed because of a single party’s self-interested decision. Unbelievable.

An unusual Second Empire formerly located at “Erie Square.” That whole block of buildings was removed to make a parking lot, but has recently made way for the Blue Water Area Transit Center (which added insult to injury by eliminating virtually all free parking for downtown businesses in that vacinity). In Blue Water Reflections, page 170, it is said that this Second Empire structure was “considered one of the most handsome old structures in the city.”  (From the Sawyer Collection, Port Huron Museum.)

Second Empire Buildings that are Still Standing

Boynton house on Huron Avenue, from 1893 (Art Work of St. Clair County, no page). This house is very elaborate, with possible added Queen Anne design elements. This house still stands, although a bit altered (especially the front 1st floor windows)–see photo below.

1005 Huron, the Boynton house as it looks today. What a difference the color and decorative elements make!

1013 Huron, Port Huron, still stands today.  The roof of this house is very elaborate and the dormer design is very elaborate and rare.  A tiny portion of the exterior walls can be seen in the original photo of the Boynton house (its neighbor), indicating that the entire house was very elaborate.  I wonder how much remains beneath that newer siding?

1305 Seventh Street, a huge example that is still standing but much altered.  To see a photo of this house as it looked originally would be an eye-opener, I do believe.

A one and a half story Second Empire that still stands, at 7th and Union streets.

It would be interesting to find out if this tiny Second Empire was really this dull-looking originally. A Google Street View image (from 2013, but the house was viewed on 03-09-17), Ontario Street at Stanton Street.

General Sources

Burnell, Mary C., Marcaccio, Amy.  Blue Water Reflections: A Pictorial History of Port Huron and the St. Clair River District. Virginia Beach: Donning Company Publishers, 1983.

McAlester, Virginia Savage.  A Field Guide to American Houses.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

Roth, Leland M.  A Concise History of American Architecture.  New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1979.

Smeins, Linda E.  Building an American Identity: Pattern Book Homes & Communities 1870-1900.  Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 1999.