89. The Mansard Roof

Historic Marker # 89 located at 915 Eaton Street between Grinnell and Margaret Streets.

When first built, this location was steps from the shoreline. However, over the last century, demand for new land to meet development needs was met with a number of dredging projects that expanded Key West from a 1 by 3 mile land mass to its current size of 2 by 4 miles. As a result, the building is now several blocks from the water.

The building's first use was as a bakery servicing the local neighborhood. Every neighborhood throughout the island had a neighborhood bakery specializing in the production of fresh Cuban bread rolls.

The structure's most intriguing architectural element is its mansard roof. Mansard roofs can be traced back to French architect Francois Mansart's use of the architectural roofing style he helped popularize in France during the seventeenth century.

This roof style is most often associated with cold climates due to its ability to shed snow loads and with lore about its beginnings evading window based property taxes. A more likely origin can be found in a Parisian taxation law that was passed in 1783, limiting the heights of buildings measured from the street level to the building's horizontal cornice line. Living space contained in the mansard roof portion of the building was exempt from taxation.

The use of mansard roofs reached their peak of popularity in the 1850s in an architectural movement known as “Second Empire style”. The style spread to the United States, most notably New England, where Second Empire roofs were often used to embellish grand mansions and family residences. See the third story mansard roof at Historic Marker # 4.

You may wonder how the style spread from New England to South Florida and Key West. In a sub-tropical climate, snow loads are not an issue and local property taxes have never recognized exemptions for livable spaces housed in mansard roofs.

One possible explanation for the appearance of mansard roofs in Key West can be traced to sailors originating from the East Coast. Fishermen from New England routinely sailed to the Florida Keys and the Caribbean during winter months in search of warmer waters to continue their livelihood. Many captains, ship carpenters, and crew members settled here bringing their knowledge and skills of building mansard roofs along with classic three bay cottages seen throughout Key West's Historic District.

Alternately, the styles prevalence may relate to a builder's familiarity with constructing mansard structures, building material shortages or the international nature of Key West's population in the nineteenth century.

This building has only changed hands 3 times since it was built more than 100 years ago. The second owner started the Southernmost Sign Company which is still housed in the building today. His company brought a new light to the Florida Keys with the introduction of neon signs in 1953.