After emerging independent and free from the colonial yoke of Great Britain, post-revolutionary America began to form its national identity. Whether inspired by the works of Seneca or the life of Cincinnatus, early leaders like George Washington understood this nation to be the inheritor of Roman republican traditions. They sought to imbue America’s Novus Ordo Seclorum with symbols and architecture evocative of this. Concurrently, a growing class of merchants and landowners desired ways to show their taste and wealth. This confluence of interests in symbolic meaning and fashionable forms flowered into America’s Federal Style.
The rediscoveries of the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii in 1719 and 1748, respectively, showed a variety in Roman architecture not quite revealed by Renaissance architects like Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) and later Anglo-Palladian architects such as Colen Campbell (1676-1729). As the world of ancient Rome began to open up, architects traveled throughout France and Italy studying, learning, and drawing.
This focus on antiquity sparked a new fashion in late 18th century English architecture popularized by architects like William Chambers (1723-1796) and the Scottish brothers James and Robert Adam (1728-1792). In the Adams’ work they translated classical motifs into a style of architecture and decoration so identified with them it came to be known as the Adam Style.
The fashionable Adam Style influenced the architecture and decorative arts of the young America during a period when the Federalist Party was promoting a strong federal government, hence we refer to the style, spanning roughly from 1780 to 1820, as the Federal Style. Architecture and furniture of this era moved away from the heavier Palladian correctness of the American Georgian tradition to more vertically orientated proportions and an overall grace and lightness. Additionally, classical motifs such as urns and floral swags were employed decoratively and often transformed into motifs with particular American resonance such as eagles, sheaves of wheat, and busts of Washington.
The Federal Style house was typically two and one-half to three stories high with exterior walls often articulated with panels and stringcourses. New room shapes were incorporated with elliptical or circular rooms even breaking through the mass of the house at times. Windows were symmetrically disposed about the entrance, unless the house was narrow with a side hall and entrance, when the windows were sometimes grouped into a tri-partite window. Double or triple hung sash windows decreased in height from first to second to third floors with the first floor windows having a width to height ratio of 1:2, 1:2.5, or 1:3. Palladian, elliptical, or round windows occur frequently. Sashes were commonly divided into 6 lites with thin muntins and were protected by paneled or louvered shutters.
Entrances were elaborately designed with a surround of attenuated pilasters or engaged columns framing side-lites and an arched or elliptical fanlight, both accented by delicate tracery, and frequently covered by a small porch. Ornamental motifs, richly deployed, included swags, urns, eagles, flags, arrows, and more. In materials appropriate to the locale, walls were of clapboard, smooth faced brick or, rarely, stucco which was sometimes scored to imitate stone; with metal, slate or wood shingle roofs.
Architects and craftsmen like Samuel McIntire (1757-1811), Charles Bulfinch (1763-1845), and Asher Benjamin (1773-1845) along with numerous others popularized this neoclassical taste in America’s architecture. Among America’s finest Federal Style houses are Homewood (1801-1803) near Baltimore, the George Read II House (1801) in Old New Castle, the Nathaniel Russell House (ca. 1809) in Charleston and the Gardner-White-Pingree House (1804) in Salem.
The decorative arts, English cabinetmakers’ books such as Thomas Sheraton’s Cabinet-Maker’s and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book (1793) and George Hepplewhite’s Cabinet Maker and Upholsterers Guide (1788) influenced America’s craftsmen greatly. Cities such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore were home to many fine American furniture makers like Duncan Phyfe. From architecture and furniture, to textiles, silver and more, the spirit of the Federal Style infused and enthused America’s design culture.
With its ebullience balanced by modest restraint and its use of classical motifs, the Federal Style mirrored the youthful excitement of a new nation that had been forged through rational thought out of the classical tradition. An excellent introduction to the style is covered in Wendell Garrett’s Classic America: The Federal Style and Beyond. And with over 300 carefully researched and drawn designs, MaryBeth Mudrick and Lawrence D. Smith’s Federal Style Patterns: 1780-1820, published in 2005 by Wiley, assists today’s designers in understanding and utilizing this style for new work.
Copyright for all images and text, unless in the public domain or otherwise noted, Christine G. H. Franck, Inc.