Hamilton Hall, Salem. Photograph by Fletcher. Image used under the Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license. No changes were made to this image.
If you take a walk down Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia, you’ll be met with with quaint brick homes, festooned with ornate front facades and elliptical fanlights.
This is a quintessential example of an architectural style that developed in the US in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, called Federal architecture. Along with colonial, cape cod, Victorian, and other architectural styles, it forms a part of historical American architecture that can be found scattered around the country.
But what is Federal architecture, and what are its primary features? In this article, we’ll cover it all, so you know what to look for when constructing Federal style buildings.
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The Federal style, also called the Adam style, dominated the architectural landscape in the US from about 1785 to 1820. Some consider it a variation of the Georgian style, which sprang up in about 1700.
Federal architecture was a kind of revival of Roman architecture, and is often associated with Benjamin Latrobe and Thomas Jefferson. It eventually became a popular style for governmental buildings.
Generally, the term “Federal” refers to a period in US history when the Federal system of governance was being set in motion. During this period, many buildings came up that were influenced by popular architectural styles and elements in Europe.
If you want inspiration to construct a Federal-style building, you can find this type of architecture in many port cities, where there was a focus on developing efficient housing in well-planned cities.
Furthermore, Federal-style buildings are scattered along almost every city on the East Coast, from Georgetown to the seaport towns of New England. Some prominent Federal buildings include Tudor Place (1815) and Decatur House (1819) in DC, and Woodlawn Plantation (1805) in Virginia.
If you want to see the oldest Federal-style house in the US, look no farther than the White House. Of course, this iconic structure is more ornate than most Federal homes, but the columns flanking the entrance are typical of the more elaborate Federal houses of the time.
Whether you’re constructing a Federal style home or government infrastructure, here are the key elements of Federal architecture.
Federal-style buildings are usually rectangular or square shaped, and two to three stories high. In contrast, the interior spaces are often octagonal.
Hipped roof or low-pitched side gables.
Most Federal style structures are noticeably understated. Moldings and columns tend to be relatively simple and narrow.
An emphasis on symmetry and balance. You can see this in the arrangement of chimneys, porches, windows, balustrades and doors.
Geometrical concepts are often showcased in what decoration is present. You may find circular, elliptical or fan-shaped motifs.
Windows tend to be double-hung with thin muntins to separate panes.
Federal style architecture is usually not ornate. However, the entrance may contain decorative elements, such as Doric columns, fanlights, and leaded sidelights. Such features are usually meant to indicate the that an “important” person lives there.
Some buildings may have attached dependencies or projecting wings. At times, you may find polygonal or curved floor plans, such as in the Octagon House (1799) in Washington.
Building materials tend to vary by location. Houses in the south are usually made of brick, while those of the northeast often feature clapboard siding. In the urban north, brick is common for its fireproofing capacities.
On the interior, there is often a hall in the center or to the side. There are also classical cornices, usually with modillions or dentil moldings.
One couldn’t be blamed for confusing a Federal home for a Georgian home. After all, many Federal features were borrowed from Georgian architecture, such as the symmetrical windows and flat façade.
However, there are a couple of ways you can tell them apart.
Federal style buildings are typically more understated than Georgian style ones. They do not include the ornate details of Georgian buildings.
They are more formal looking than Georgian buildings. Often, the front door will be flanked by sidelights so that it appears more stately and refined.
Whether you’re going for government building design or residential construction, here are the details you need to know about what works for modern Federal style structures.
Maintain a traditional and simple look. Understated vintage pieces work well, as well as Victorian or Colonial farmhouse style elements. This will help give even a modern Federal style building a historic look and feel.
Most color palettes will work in Federal style buildings. However, we recommend sticking to neutral colors, with some accents for variety. Beige, warm cream, red, and rich wood tones will work well.
Like the architecture itself, the landscaping for Federal buildings tends to be symmetrical and central. This includes motor courts, flower beds, gates, walkways, hedges, trees, etc.
Some gardens can be naturalistic, composed mainly of lawn, walkways, flowers, and thickets. This is notable in many historic large estates and rural cemeteries.
Living or working in a Federal-style building can give residents or workers a feeling of dignity and stateliness – all reflected from their surroundings. We hope this article has given you some inspiration if you are considering a new construction.
Having said that, all good, safe construction requires architectural documentation. BluEntCAD provides drafting services to homebuilders, large architectural and engineering companies, real estate developers, and custom home designers. Browse our portfolio to see how we’ve helped companies like yours.
Ready to construct a gorgeous building with the help of architectural construction documents? Contact us now!