What is ‘FEDERAL’ Style ?

A series discussion of architectural styles in the U.S.
Monticello VA090
Jefferson’s Monticello represented his personal design ideas for a National or Federal style.  Interestingly architectural historians later created an alternate name . . . “Jeffersonian“, which i’m guessing the man himself would not approve.

By the mid-18th century, as our British mother country began to overstep her governmental overreach, American colonists began to look at their options and alternatives.  How could these hardworking men and women settlers make the most of the opportunities available in this new land . . . without “outsiders” constantly interfering?  Long, fascinating story shortened – Americans decided to become independent citizens who would forge their own unique forms of government, law, procedure & process, and a globally-imperative . . . STYLE.

The incipient, newborn nation sought to find its footing and take its place on the world stage in a way unique to its peculiar cultural and aesthetic environment (. . . UNIQUELY AMERICAN).  With Thomas Jefferson leading the charge, the Founding Fathers pursued a unified national vision for its architectural panache . . . sometimes referred to as Federal style.  Jefferson felt strongly that the art & architecture of the new Republic were vitally important to its ultimate success.  For Thomas Jefferson, architecture & art were among the most important cultural creations to place the young United States in a global spotlight, and to launch a competitive and recognizable American brand and style demanding respect and praise from the haughty European establishment.  Therefore, it’s no surprise architectural historian Fiske Kimball called Jefferson “the father of our national architecture”.  MONTICELLO – the home of Thomas Jefferson

Just as the Founders had created our own civil government drawn on a sympathetic and syncretistic undertaking of the ancient Hebrew and Roman Republics, so too could the visual arts reflect a mastery of the varied architectural precedents of the ancient Greeks and Romans. For example – one of those geographical & political areas of early settlement and still visible today is the “Mississippi Territory”, or more specifically the town of Natchez on the Mississippi River.

The mansion known as Auburn, built 1812, exhibits a strange combination of classical details – a two-story Roman Ionic portico with a Corinthian entablature – as well as a geometrical staircase copied from popular carpentry books of the day.  The fact these details were “copied” from books is why the Ionic and Corinthian were wrongly merged. . .academically speaking of course.  Even so, this beautiful house is considered to be the first in the pioneer territory that utilized the academic classical Orders of Architecture.

img_1331 auburn 1812
Auburn ca. 1812;   http://auburnmuseum.org/

A grisly murder in New York City precipitated the introduction of Classical architecture to the Mississippi Territory.  Levi Weeks, a carver and master builder from New England, came to Natchez about 1809, opened a cabinet and chair shop and established himself as a builder.  Born at Greenwich, Massachusetts, in 1776, Weeks had worked in New York City between 1798 and 1803 for his older brother Ezra, who was also a housewright.  But Levi was accused of murdering his lover, Julia Sands, and throwing her body down a well.”     (page 27: Architecture of the Old South – MS and AL)

Although Levi was acquitted, his reputation and career in New York was destroyed. Weeks finally settled in the Mississippi Territory and in 1812 began the design of the Natchez home called Auburn, of which he described as “the first house in the territory on which was ever attempted the orders of Architecture.”    In the mid-18th century, English builders had copied the monumental forms of ancient public buildings as published in the works of the late Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio and his English popularizers.  In turn, the craftsmen who came to Natchez from the East, particularly from New England, brought with them knowledge of Roman porticoes, Tuscan columns, fanlights, and Palladian windows, cascading spiral stairs and swirling patterns of surface decoration, which are characteristics we now know in America as the Federal style.

img_1319 auburn 1812
Auburn ca. 1812; http://auburnmuseum.org/

So we’re still attempting to define Federal style in a way that distinguishes from other early American architecture?

The best-selling book by Virginia and Lee McAlester (A Field Guide to American Houses – 2013 edition) describes the Federal style’s identifying features:  “Semi-circular or elliptical fanlight over front door (with or without sidelights); fanlight often incorporated into more elaborate door surround, which may include a decorative crown or small entry porch; cornice usually emphasized by decorative moldings, most commonly with tooth-like dentils; windows with double-hung sashes usually having six panes per sash and separated by thin wooden supports (muntins); windows aligned horizontally and vertically in symmetrical rows, usually five-ranked on front facade, less commonly three-ranked or seven-ranked; windows never in adjacent pairs, although three-part Palladian-style windows are common.  A side-gable is the most common Federal roof over a simple box form.

Encyclopedia Britannica states it thusly:   “. . . American revival of Roman architecture, especially associated with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Latrobe (Father of American Architecture). It flourished from 1785 to 1820 and later in governmental building. The Federal style had definite philosophical ties to the concept of Rome as the republic that the new American country thought it reflected.”  We’ve discussed previously What is ‘GREEK REVIVAL’,  but what is ‘ROMAN REVIVAL’ ?  Shall we use that simply as a brief subtitle . . . Roman Revival = Federal style?

Built in 1798, the “new” State House is located across from the Boston Common on the top of Beacon Hill. The land was once owned by the first elected governor of Massachusetts, John Hancock. The building was designed by Charles Bulfinch, the architect of the US Capitol, and is considered a masterpiece of Federal-style architecture.  The Massachusetts State House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960.

“Federal” style architecture has, for myself, always been somewhat difficult to identify.  However one defines it, the heavy British influence was prevalent during the 1780-1820 period, which is certainly why it flourished in the northeastern states.  Therefore, understandably some of the best visual representatives of the style are found in Boston.  Some historians may blend “Colonial” and “Adamesque” together to form the “Federal”.  To make things even more indeterminate, many “Federal” characteristics continued/dissolved inside the succeeding “Romantic” period styles such as “Italianate” or “Greek Revival“.

Our efforts to define it shall happily continue!


D. Tracy Ward, Architect

Uploaded February 2019 – DTW’s Blog #0038

Our Original Posts, including images when applicable, are copyrighted © 1993-2019 by D. Tracy Ward and Benchmark Design, PC.  God bless America!  Treasure Liberty always and pass it on!   “Architecture aims at Eternity.  [CHRISTOPHER WREN, Parentalia]

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