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Central Pavilion, Tontine Crescent, Boston, 1793-1794, by Charles Bulfinch

Federal-style architecture is the name for the classicizing architecture built in the United States between c. 1780 and 1830, and particularly from 1785 to 1815. This style shares its name with its era, the Federal Period. In the early Republic, the founding generation consciously chose to associate the nation with the ancient democracies of Greece and the republican values of Rome. Grecian aspirations informed the Greek Revival, lasting into the 1850s. Using Roman architectural vocabulary,[1] the Federal style applied to the balanced and symmetrical version of Georgian architecture that had been practiced in the American colonies new motifs of Neoclassical architecture as it was epitomized in Britain by Robert Adam, who published his designs in 1792. The classicizing manner of constructions and town planning undertaken by the federal government was expressed in federal projects of lighthouses and harbor buildings, hospitals and in the rationalizing urbanistic layout of L'Enfant's Washington DC and in New York the Commissioners' Plan of 1811.[2]

"Julia Row", New Orleans, 1830s: Federal townhouses with commercial space behind the ground-floor arcaded windows

In two generations during which a gentleman's education included the ability to draw up an idiomatic classical elevation[3] for craftsmen who were themselves trained in the classical vocabulary, and where masons and house carpenters on their own produced a refined vernacular architecture, this American neoclassical high style was the idiom of America's first professional architects, in the generation of c. 1800, men such as Charles Bulfinch, architect of the Massachusetts State House, Boston, or Minard Lafever

American federal architecture differs from preceding Georgian colonial interpretations in its use of plainer surfaces with attenuated detail, usually isolated in panels, tablets and friezes. It was most influenced by the interpretation of Ancient Roman architecture fashionable after the unearthing of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The Bald Eagle was a common symbol used in this style, with the ellipse a frequent architectural motif.

The style broadly corresponds to the middle-class classicism of Biedermeier style in the German-speaking lands, Regency style in Britain and to the French Empire style.



Holladay House (ca. 1830) in Orange, Virginia is an excellent example of a Federal home constructed from masonry, similar to Montpelier and Monticello.

Homes had balanced proportions and light-filled rooms.[4] Fireplace openings were reduced in size; they often had a central tablet in the frieze, which might be treated architecturally, and they often had flanking columns or pilasters. Side-lights around doorways and fan-lights above them gave light to halls. Wood-paneled rooms gave way to walls hung with textiles and wallpapers. Furnishings adopted architectural "Roman" details and small tables and desks multiplied in their specific types. Designers began to look to France rather than England for styles. The most familiar furniture made in the Federal style is that produced by Duncan Phyfe in New York.[5]

Federal vernacular: Old Derby Academy (1818), Hingham, Massachusetts

Architects of the Federal period

Modern reassessment of the American architecture of the Federal period began with Fiske Kimball, Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and the Early Republic, 1922.[6]

See also


  1. ^ The design vocabulary of Federal architecture is accessibly illustrated and contrasted with Greek Revival in Rachel Carley, The Visual Dictionary of American Domestic Architecture 1994, ch. 5 "Neoclassical Styles", p. 90ff.
  2. ^ For the federal government's role in Federal architectural style and its symbolisms, see Lois Craig, ed. The Federal Presence: Architecture, Politics and Symbols in United States Government Building (Federal Architecture Project, Cambridge: MIT Press) 1978, chs. 1-3, with brief text and extended captions to multiple illustrations.
  3. ^ Not, of course, designs as ambitious as those of Thomas Jefferson, an amateur who, in other circumstances, could have made a profession as architect.
  4. ^ Passumpsic donates to historical society. the Chronicle. July 2, 2008.  
  5. ^ Charles F. Montgomery, American Furniture: The Federal Period, 1966.
  6. ^ It "established a generation ago a scholarly basis for subsequent study of early American architecture", observes Hugh Morrison, in the Acknowledgments prefacing Early American Architecture From the First Colonial Settlements to the National Period (1951, repr. 1987) p. xiii.

External references

  • Craig, Lois A., The Federal Presence: Architecture, Politics and National Design. The MIT Press: 1984. ISBN 0-262-53059-7.

External links



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