Federal architecture

Federal architecture

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Federal-style architecture is the name for the classicizing architecture built in the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 between c. 1780 and 1830, and particularly from 1785 to 1815. This style shares its name with its era, the Federal Period
Federalist Era
The Federalist Era was a time period in American history from roughly 1789-1801 when the Federalist Party was dominant in American politics. This period saw the adoption of the United States Constitution and the expansion of the federal government. In addition, the era saw the growth of a strong...

. The name Federal style is also used in association with furniture design in the United States of the same time period. In the early Republic, the founding generation consciously chose to associate the nation with the ancient democracies of Greece
Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece is a civilization belonging to a period of Greek history that lasted from the Archaic period of the 8th to 6th centuries BC to the end of antiquity. Immediately following this period was the beginning of the Early Middle Ages and the Byzantine era. Included in Ancient Greece is the...

 and the republican values of Rome
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

. Grecian aspirations informed the Greek Revival, lasting into the 1850s. Using Roman architectural vocabulary, the Federal style applied to the balanced and symmetrical version of Georgian architecture
Georgian architecture
Georgian architecture is the name given in most English-speaking countries to the set of architectural styles current between 1720 and 1840. It is eponymous for the first four British monarchs of the House of Hanover—George I of Great Britain, George II of Great Britain, George III of the United...

 that had been practiced in the American colonies new motifs of Neoclassical architecture
Neoclassical architecture
Neoclassical architecture was an architectural style produced by the neoclassical movement that began in the mid-18th century, manifested both in its details as a reaction against the Rococo style of naturalistic ornament, and in its architectural formulas as an outgrowth of some classicizing...

 as it was epitomized in Britain by Robert Adam
Robert Adam
Robert Adam was a Scottish neoclassical architect, interior designer and furniture designer. He was the son of William Adam , Scotland's foremost architect of the time, and trained under him...

, 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
Commissioners' Plan of 1811
The Commissioners' Plan of 1811 was the original design plan for the streets of Manhattan, which put in place the grid plan that has defined Manhattan to this day....


In two generations during which a gentleman's education included the ability to draw up an idiomatic classical elevation for craftsmen who were themselves trained in the classical vocabulary, and where masons and house carpenters on their own produced a refined vernacular architecture
Vernacular architecture
Vernacular architecture is a term used to categorize methods of construction which use locally available resources and traditions to address local needs and circumstances. Vernacular architecture tends to evolve over time to reflect the environmental, cultural and historical context in which it...

, 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
Charles Bulfinch
Charles Bulfinch was an early American architect, and has been regarded by many as the first native-born American to practice architecture as a profession....

, architect of the Massachusetts State House
Massachusetts State House
The Massachusetts State House, also known as the Massachusetts Statehouse or the "New" State House, is the state capitol and house of government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is located in Boston in the neighborhood Beacon Hill...

, Boston, or Minard Lafever
Minard Lafever
Minard Lafever was an influential American architect of churches and houses in the United States in the early nineteenth century.-Life and career:...

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 also had a flatter smoother facade and rarely used pilasters. It was most influenced by the interpretation of Ancient Roman architecture
Roman architecture
Ancient Roman architecture adopted certain aspects of Ancient Greek architecture, creating a new architectural style. The Romans were indebted to their Etruscan neighbors and forefathers who supplied them with a wealth of knowledge essential for future architectural solutions, such as hydraulics...

 fashionable after the unearthing of Pompeii
The city of Pompeii is a partially buried Roman town-city near modern Naples in the Italian region of Campania, in the territory of the comune of Pompei. Along with Herculaneum, Pompeii was destroyed and completely buried during a long catastrophic eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius spanning...

 and Herculaneum
Herculaneum was an ancient Roman town destroyed by volcanic pyroclastic flows in AD 79, located in the territory of the current commune of Ercolano, in the Italian region of Campania in the shadow of Mt...

. The Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle
The Bald Eagle is a bird of prey found in North America. It is the national bird and symbol of the United States of America. This sea eagle has two known sub-species and forms a species pair with the White-tailed Eagle...

 was a common symbol used in this style, with the ellipse
In geometry, an ellipse is a plane curve that results from the intersection of a cone by a plane in a way that produces a closed curve. Circles are special cases of ellipses, obtained when the cutting plane is orthogonal to the cone's axis...

 a frequent architectural motif
Motif (art)
In art, a motif is an element of a pattern, an image or part of one, or a theme. A motif may be repeated in a design or composition, often many times, or may just occur once in a work. A motif may be an element in the iconography of a particular subject or type of subject that is seen in other...


The style broadly corresponds to the middle-class classicism of Biedermeier
In Central Europe, the Biedermeier era refers to the middle-class sensibilities of the historical period between 1815, the year of the Congress of Vienna at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and 1848, the year of the European revolutions...

 style in the German-speaking lands, Regency style in Britain and to the French Empire style.


Homes had balanced proportions and light-filled rooms. 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 wallpaper
Wallpaper is a kind of material used to cover and decorate the interior walls of homes, offices, and other buildings; it is one aspect of interior decoration. It is usually sold in rolls and is put onto a wall using wallpaper paste...

s. Furnishings adopted architectural "Roman" details and small tables and desks multiplied in their specific types. Much Federal furniture is in the manner of Hepplewhite's Cabinet Maker and Upholsterers Guide
Cabinet Maker and Upholsterers Guide
The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterers Guide is a famous antiquarian book, reference book, and non-fiction work all in one. Many cabinetmakers and furniture designers still use it as a ready reference for making period furniture or designs inspired by this era. Historians of domestic life or the...

 and Thomas Sheraton
Thomas Sheraton
Thomas Sheraton was a furniture designer, one of the "big three" English furniture makers of the 18th century, along with Thomas Chippendale and George Hepplewhite.-Biography:...

's published designs, but American designers also 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
Duncan Phyfe
Duncan Phyfe was one of nineteenth-century America’s leading furniture makers.Born Duncan Fife near Loch Fannich, Scotland, he emigrated to Albany, New York, at age 16 and served as a cabinetmaker’s apprentice...

 in New York.

Architects of the Federal period

  • Asher Benjamin
    Asher Benjamin
    Asher Benjamin was an American architect and author whose work transitioned between Federal style architecture and the later Greek Revival. His seven handbooks on design deeply influenced the look of cities and towns throughout New England until the Civil War...

  • Charles Bulfinch
    Charles Bulfinch
    Charles Bulfinch was an early American architect, and has been regarded by many as the first native-born American to practice architecture as a profession....

  • James Hoban
    James Hoban
    James Hoban was an Irish architect, best known for designing The White House in Washington, D.C.-Life:James Hoban was born and raised in a thatched cottage on the Earl of Desart's estate in Cuffesgrange, near Callan in Co. Kilkenny...

  • Thomas Jefferson
    Thomas Jefferson
    Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the United States Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom , the third President of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia...

  • Minard Lafever
    Minard Lafever
    Minard Lafever was an influential American architect of churches and houses in the United States in the early nineteenth century.-Life and career:...

  • Pierre L'Enfant
  • Benjamin Latrobe
    Benjamin Latrobe
    Benjamin Henry Boneval Latrobe was a British-born American neoclassical architect best known for his design of the United States Capitol, along with his work on the Baltimore Basilica, the first Roman Catholic Cathedral in the United States...

  • Samuel Lewis
    Samuel Lewis
    Samuel Lewis was the editor and publisher of topographical dictionaries and maps of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The aim of the texts was to give in 'a condensed form', a faithful and impartial description of each place. The firm of Samuel Lewis and Co. was based in London....

  • John McComb, Jr.
  • Samuel McIntire
    Samuel McIntire
    Samuel McIntyre was an American architect and craftsman, Chestnut Street District, a legacy to one of the earliest architects in the United States, Samuel McIntyre is a primary example of Federal style architecture....

  • Robert Mills
    Robert Mills (architect)
    Robert Mills , most famously known for designing the Washington Monument, is sometimes called the first native born American to become a professional architect, though Charles Bulfinch perhaps has a clearer claim to this honor...

  • Alexander Parris
    Alexander Parris
    Alexander Parris was a prominent American architect-engineer. Beginning as a housewright, he evolved into an architect whose work transitioned from Federal style architecture to the later Greek Revival. Parris taught Ammi B. Young, and was among the group of architects influential in founding what...

  • William Strickland
    William Strickland (architect)
    William Strickland , was a noted architect in nineteenth-century Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Nashville, Tennessee.-Life and career:...

  • Martin E. Thompson
    Martin E. Thompson
    Martin Euclid Thompson was an American architect and artist prolific in nineteenth-century New York City, and a co-founder of the National Academy of Design....

  • William Thornton
    William Thornton
    Dr. William Thornton was a British-American physician, inventor, painter and architect who designed the United States Capitol, an authentic polymath...

  • Ithiel Town
    Ithiel Town
    Ithiel Town was a prominent American architect and civil engineer. One of the first generation of professional architects in the United States, Town made significant contributions to American architecture in the first half of the 19th century. He was high-strung, sophisticated, generous,...

  • Ammi B. Young
    Ammi B. Young
    Ammi Burnham Young was an important 19th century American architect whose commissions transitioned from the Greek Revival to the Neo-Renaissance styles. His Second Vermont State House brought him fame and success, which eventually led him to become the first Supervising Architect of the U.S....

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.

External references

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

External links