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1780 - 1840: Federal and Adam House Styles

Picture Dictionary of House Styles in North America and Beyond

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Graceful details distinguish Federal homes from the pragmatic Georgian Colonial style.
Woodlawn, near Mount Vernon, Virginia

Woodlawn, near Mount Vernon, Virginia, is often called "Georgian Colonial." However, the fanlight and the elliptical window in the gable are characteristic of the Federal style. Designed by William Thornton, Woodlawn was completed in 1805.

Photo © 2000 ArtToday.com
American Federal houses have many of these features:
  • Low-pitched roof, or flat roof with a balustrade
  • Windows arranged symmetrically around a center doorway
  • Semicircular fanlight over the front door
  • Narrow side windows flanking the front door
  • Decorative crown or roof over front door
  • Tooth-like dentil moldings in the cornice
  • Palladian window
  • Circular or elliptical windows
  • Shutters
  • Decorative swags and garlands
  • Oval rooms and arches
These architects are known for their Federalist buildings:
  • Charles Bulfinch
  • Samuel McIntyre
  • Alexander Parris
  • William Thorton
About the Federal Style

Like much of America's architecture, the Federal (or Federalist) style has its roots in the British Isles. Three Scottish brothers named Adam adapted the pragmatic Georgian style, adding swags, garlands, urns, and Neoclassical details. In the newly formed United States, homes and public buildings also took on graceful airs. Inspired by the work of the Adam brothers and also by the great temples of ancient Greece and Rome, Americans began to build homes with Palladian windows, circular or elliptical windows, recessed wall arches, and oval-shaped rooms. This new Federal style became associated with America's evolving national identity.

It's easy to confuse Federalist architecture with the earlier Georgian Colonial style. The difference is in the details: While Georgian homes are square and angular, a Federal style building is more likely to have curved lines and decorative flourishes. The White House in Washington DC began as a Georgian, and later took on a Federalist flavor as architects added an elliptical portico and other Neoclassical embellishments.

Federalist architecture was the favored style in the United States from about 1780 until the 1830s. However, Federalist details are often incorporated into modern American homes. Look past the vinyl siding, and you may see a fanlight or the elegant arch of a Palladian window.

Related Styles:

See More Colonial House Styles

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