Photos and illustration by the author unless otherwise indicated
The Second Empire Style was a type of house whose styling is considered to be within the broad term of Victorian style. Generally, the Second Empire type was constructed throughout many parts of the U.S. between 1860 and about 1880. They were seen throughout the country but fewer examples were built in the West and South. The Polar Lights kit is representative of a free standing Second Empire-style house, but townhouses or row houses also exist in most cities. Stone, wood and brick have all been used in the construction of this style house.
As with most architectural styles (especially within the U.S.), most of these homes were actually combinations of several styles, but this distinctive type of house had a number of easy-to-recognize spotting points:
1) A Mansard roof that is of French lineage. All four sides are very steeply sloped with a very gradual slope on top (or flat roof above) that provided a virtually full-height attic above the structure, usually featuring dormers (roof windows) that permitted the use of the attic as rooms with no modification of the roof.
2) A tower, often centered in the front of the building, with symmetrical or nearly symmetrical window and detail placement. The tower might only be a few feet above the roof but could also be a story or two taller. Some of these houses have a central cupola atop the middle of the roof in lieu of the front tower.
3) Paired or triple window banks, although many of these houses had single windows as on the Polar Lights kit.
4) Bays, often extending the height of several stories are common, as are porches.
Some Second Empire homes had an asymmetrical layout with the tower at one corner. The Mansard roofs are often concave or convex (curved in like a cove or bellied out like a segment of a rod) as well as the flat type in the kit.
After chasing down a number of examples of prototype Second Empire houses in various locations in the Northeast from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania, I think that the Polar Lights model is quite typical in representing this style of architecture. This kit is suitable for use on most railroads as it comes from the box or with modification as you can see in the photos. I look forward to seeing what other modelers will do to modify their models.
The model has a front porch that wraps around the tower. Many prototype houses have porches straight across the front. With parts from Grandt Line and Campbell (and others) it is very easy to change or reconstruct the porch or any other part of the kit.
The Greene house (in tan and chocolate) is the first one I built. I only made one change; since I didn't like the proportions of the porch I lowered it slightly by cutting down the pillars. The house is painted in buff with trim and windows of mahogany and shutters painted dove gray. I thought the roof fences were a bit overpowering so I took off the small tips with an X-Acto knife to make them less massive.
The Truesdale house (painted forest green) was built next, and I opened up the center part of the triple window in the tower to create a balcony door. I then added a balcony made of styrene sheet and replaced the original parts with Grandt Line railing and pillars. The main porch has Grandt railings and is modified with lattice sections below the porch so the entrances are now at the two front corners off the sides rather than center of the front. Evergreen strip was used to make the little trellises. The kitchen extension is made of Evergreen clapboard sheet with square section strip in the corners and shingle roof panel from Plastruct.
I added dormers from SS Ltd. on the two sides and the tower by cleaning off the flash on the metal castings, painting the part with the trim, backing it with acrylic plastic and making sides and top of styrene painted to match the roof. Curtains in this and all of these houses are made from old magazine ads adhered with Testors clear plastic window cement, a white glue made to avoid staining or etching of clear parts in model plane canopies.
This house is painted in Forest Green with Mist Gray windows and Light Creme trim on the shutters.
The Van Coralaer cottage was built by cutting off the second floor of the house and subsequently adjusting the tower wall line to accommodate the roof without modification. For this I created a new frieze (the boards that run along the top of the wall under the overhang of the roof) of styrene strip with triangles cut to resemble the brackets of the kit. You could carefully cut off some of the extra brackets when modifying the model to use in front of the tower, but I didn't think of this when I did the modification.
When the house was complete I felt that the porch was overpowering for such a small house. Consequently, I removed all of it except for a section in front that I cut back, and to which I added a pair of Campbell pillars. The foundation and floor of the porch was left in place although it could be removed if desired. On most of these houses I used Grandt Line chimneys as this seems like the one detail left out of the kit. I haven't found any dormer windows I like, but at some future time I shall add the typical dormers to make the attic more usable in this little house. The cottage is painted Pale Delft Blue with Warm White trim.
The Beekman house is the final house or should I say three houses. They incorporate the most elaborate changes to the kit. The first and most obvious change is the tall tower which is made from the sections left over from the cottage conversion. A new roof was needed and by measuring the tower size I was able to sketch out the concave forms on Plastruct shingle styrene sheet: when cut out they were bowed in by finger pressure, and were glued together and edged with .005 thick strip for the flashings at the corners. I used .040 strip from the scrap box to edge most of the inside for reinforcement. The front of the second story of the tower now has the second-floor window paneled over in the center to change its appearance from the identical part used on the next floor. I further modified its appearance by adding the dark blue awning to visually cut off the top of the windows to square them off (ask anyone who builds Santa Fe steam engines - they do the same thing). The porch is now slightly asymmetrical although I could have made it a straight across porch, I wanted it to balance the little porch off the dining room on the side. The new porch has railings from Grandt Line and spool trim under the frieze line. Above the porch roof, which I made of flat sheet styrene, is some "Widow's Walk" railing from Grandt Line. I repeated this trim on the little side porch. On the left side of the house (as we face it) you can see the SS Ltd. bay I added on in the front parlor to give it some additional light. Again, Grandt Line lattice was used below the porches.
I searched for some appropriate dormers and found the little Grandt Line windows you see which I backed up with triangles on either side and a rectangle across the top for the roof to create proper dormers.
The reason I refer to this as three houses is that during construction I removed the roof to add some interior details and noticed that by adding a flat roof it is possible to simulate a simpler looking structure: I have seen a number of these in city and suburban settings and after noticing this effect on the kit, I wonder how many of the real ones were built like this and how many might have had fires that burned off their attics (and Mansard roofs). A second variation came about when I removed the upper story of the tower, leaving a two-story bay. If I were going to use this in the final model I would have adjusted the height of the bay so it matched the front wall.
Beekman house is painted in Linen White with Prussian Blue trim. While this is the most elaborate house of the four I built I kept the trim the simplest with no corner or eve trim contrast, painting these the same color as the walls.
Notice that when looking at the models, that the paint jobs help create variations. The light colored Beekman and Greene houses can be considered "positive" coloration while the dark Truesdale and medium tone Van Coralaer houses read visually as "negative" for they have light trim, the opposite of the light painted houses. For some ideas on painting model houses, look at real ones or take a trip to a paint store and check the colors of exterior paints. These can be modeled with any good brand of model train paint and will help you make realistic houses.
The Polar Lights Psycho House is a well designed kit in which all the parts fit well, although you may want to make some small changes such as the order of assembly or elimination of the flange below the basement. The walls are molded with the window trim integral. While this house can be built with no change of color at the window frames, it is easy to add a second color for there are sharply raised moldings. Probably the only examples of one-color houses of this type are white on white, but at least there is a prototype for those of us who don't like detail painting. While I did change most of the porch railings, the kit parts are very acceptable in my opinion.
When not using the molded hilltop base, which some modelers might want to incorporate into their layouts, the staircases can be moved around a bit with their exact orientations changed. The upper roof galleries (railings) are a bit heavy, but I modified some of these by cutting them down so they would be less massive. They could also be replaced with roof trim from one of the model detail companies. While I used some styrene molded railings, etched-brass ones, which are very striking, are also available.
If you intend to light you model , there is already a hole in the floor to permit adding a light bulb. I made my roofs removable by simply not gluing them in place. I strongly suggest painting the interior walls black or making black paper masks to keep light from showing through the translucent styrene walls. This will happen with all styrene kits. Addition of either some light blocks in the form of little cubicles of styrene sheet and a second floor landing will permit you to light certain rooms and leave others dark in a most realistic style. On the layout it is nearly as effective to just make a shade of black paper to prevent light from showing. Interior details are always effective, but only are needed if you are going to place your model right at the front of the layout where visitors can see the detailing, otherwise the effect is really lost. I had ordered some porch furniture made by Plastruct, but my mail order hobby source sent me park benches instead - a good reason to patronize your local retailer when you can. A glider, a card table and a couple of chairs on the porch with grandma and grandpa watching the world go by would help make a very typical American vignette for your town.
This model was originally made as part of the Aurora plastic kit horror movie line and is now being made by Polar Lights. Many hobby shop owners have discovered the kit, and it should be on the shelves of most hobby shops as you read this. The model is molded entirely of tan styrene and can be built up as intended with proper weathering, or can be distressed and made as a "haunted house" or derelict. But in towns along the Jersey Central Railroad are rows of this style of house, all in good repair, and it is those I elected to model. South Seventh street in Plainfield, N J , for example, or some of the streets off Washington Avenue north of the CNJ tracks in Dunellen come to mind. At about $20.00 in hobby shops this is not a cheap kit, but compared to anything else that has been offered in this style of building it is a bargain. I think it is a good value considering the quality of the molded parts. This is an easy-to-assemble kit which can be built up with Pro-Weld, Tenax or any good liquid styrene cement, and any one who has built a styrene structure kit before should have no trouble building the Bates House from Psycho.