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On 10:56 AM by Rachel Preston Prinz in
A new nation: A new architecture. That was the idea.
Then, they borrowed the style from the Adam Style in England  - yes, the England we had just demanded independence from - somewhat ironic, I realize.
The "new" style was influenced by the Roman style. Many have suggested because of the romanitization of Rome's rule - her "glory" as a nation. (Nevermind the pesky warring and taking of slaves, mind you. We had that too.)  Rome's power in architectural expression was bar-none - extraordinary and timeless.  Adam's travels through Europe afforded him a plethora of details to follow. And it was in these details that we found a new architectural language - a decorated one. This is the major difference between Federal and its predecessor, Georgian: Decorative, and often rounded, details... which eventually gave rise to the neoclassical style.

One might ask what the difference between a decorated style and an ornamental style would be. The clearest explanation, I think, is that ornament is structural. Ornament is the detail of the column capitol. The brackets under the balcony. Decoration is in the details APPLIED to the structure - the window mouldings, the decorative swags and garlands, the urn at the top of the staircase railing. Decoration serves little purpose but to enhance beauty.

The Federal style loves geometry and simplicity, but in a decorative way.

Davenport House, Savannah Georgia, which may actually be Georgian!

Characteristics of the delicate Federal style include:

  • Wood clapboard siding on exterior most commonly used in north, unless built in town where brick was preferred for fire resistance. Flemish-bond brick in the south. Imitation stone constructed of painted wood can be found in "high style" versions.
  • Prominent square and rectangular exteriors in two-story arrangement
  • Building plans typically square or rectangular (and proportional to the facade), arranged two rooms deep by wide. Sometimes with elliptical or round rooms in the center.  Sometimes with wings either side
  • Low-pitched hipped or gable roof with balustrade "widows walk" at top.
  • Raised foundations on subtle plinths
  • Tall slender columns - different than Greek Revival - these are linear, without entasis, which we didn't know about yet since Greece hadn't been rediscovered yet. We also didn't use pilasters the way Adam did, to add texture to the relatively flat structure.
  • Elaborate cornices with refined dentils
  • Palladian or venetian windows, often above the entrance door
  • Simple paneled doors and windows with elaborate decoration at the frame, arranged symetrically on the facade in arrangements of 3, 5 (most common), or 7 across, with flat or keystone style pediments. Often with louvered shutters.
  • Double-hung windows with 6/6 glazing most common on upper stories, first floors may have windows to floor and/or ceiling.
  • Entrance doors often have sidelights and/or a fanlight above
  • Semicircular entrance porches with balustrades above
  • Curved steps at the entrance, with slender curved iron stair rails
  • Decorations of swags, urns, etc in wood or plaster. 
  • Recessed wall arches
  • Oval-shaped rooms (including the Oval Office!)
  • Yellow, ochre, and white paint schemes on front facade, red (cheapest paint) on outbuildings and rear facades!
  • Chimneys each end
 Less common elements:
  • Open curved interior staircases, often offset from center
  • Iron balconies
  • Bay windows
  • Parapets extending past the roof

Federal style designers and architects:
  • Charles Bulfinch
  • Asher Benjamin
  • Benjamin H. Latrobe
  • Samuel McIntire
  • Alexander Parris
  • Thomas Jefferson (though some would argue he was more Palladian)
  • William Thorton 
  • Gabriel Manigault
  • William Jay
  • John McComb
  • Asher Benjamin
Period articles
Horatio Greenough. "American Architecture". United States Magazine and Democratic Review.  1843. 
In this influential essay, Greenough argued for a new American building style based on functionality, arguing against the use of Greek and Roman temples as models.

Click on the photo below to check out my Federal Architecture collection on Pinterest!