Federal Style Houses Are the Post-Revolutionary Home Trend You Should Know

Ginny Bartolone
Written by Ginny Bartolone
Updated March 14, 2022
Red brick house windows
Photo: jiawangkun / Adobe Stock

Highlights

  • The federal architectural style was prevalent from 1785–1830.

  • Designers simplified the Georgian style but kept its basic structure.

  • Ovals, fans, and Palladian windows dominated the style.

  • Exterior facades are symmetrical and simple, with touches of Greek and Roman influence.

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At the tail end of the American Revolution, a new wave of architects had the opportunity to—quite literally—build a style of homes from the ground up. If you live in a pre-1830's home and ever asked yourself, "What kind of home do I have?" it could be from the American Federal period. 

Federal-style homes celebrate some of the most iconic elements of American architecture we have today, but let's take a look at how to spot this iconic style out in the wild.

The History of Federal-Style Homes

Despite American enthusiasm for the Federal style, it was the Scottish Adam brothers who originally developed the design before the style made the leap to the United States around 1785, according to the Pennsylvania Historical Museum and Commission. American architects such as Charles Bulfinch and Samuel McIntire—among others, including Thomas Jefferson—ran with the refined style to create the look of the new nation. 

A Nod to the Past

Federal architecture—often called Adamesque or Neoclassical—drew inspiration from the Georgian style that came just before it. Georgian architecture—often interchangeable with the Colonial style—is still highly recognizable. The style features flat, brick, or wooden facades, symmetrical windows, and a dramatic central front door and portico, often flanked by carved white urns, molding, and garlands. Remember the house from Home Alone? That's a Georgian Colonial Revival with many of the same details.

Refining a Classic Look

Federal architects took the existing trend and paired back the frills to create a modern, streamlined look. They kept the clean symmetry, the side-gabled roof, and the double-hung windows. But it cut back on the elaborate ornamentation that stemmed from the Georgian style. Indoors, Federal homes kept the simple two-room deep, and two-story-tall layout like the original Classic Colonials, but added the iconic oval and hexagonal-shaped room.

The Federal style reigned primarily between 1785 and 1830, until architecture trends transitioned to Greek Revival.

Federal Architecture Features: The Exterior

Yellow house windows fence
Photo: jiawangkun / Getty Images

Because many architects of the 18th through 20th centuries studied the ancient Greeks and Romans, it can be a bit tricky to tell different home styles apart. You'll find tidbits from ancient architecture for hundreds of years, but they pop up in Federal architecture in unique ways.

The Facade

  • Flemish-bond brick (alternating long side and short side of the brick) or wooden facade

  • Symmetrical, square, or rectangular facade

  • Central front door

  • Portico over small porch or entryway

  • Flat lintels over windows

The Roof

  • Side-gabled roof that slanted toward to front of the house

  • Two or four symmetrical chimneys

  • May feature a hipped roof

  • Flatter pitch than Georgian homes

The Details

  • Palladian window over front door (an important feature to set it apart from Georgian)

  • Long windows flanking sides of door

  • Dentil crown moldings

  • Lights flanking either side of front door

  • Fancier homes include Roman elements like columns and pediments around doorway

  • Six-over-six windows with muntins

Federal Architecture Features: The Interior

Even though Federal architects loved clean lines, simple shapes, and overall subtly, the style was anything but boring, especially indoors. 

The Structure and Layout

  • Two or three stories high

  • Early, simpler homes had two rooms front to back

  • Hall set in the middle or to the side of the interior of the building

  • Oval rooms, often in the center of the home

  • Fanlight or Palladian-topped entryway

The Details

  • Focus on fine craftsmanship

  • Ceiling medallions 

  • Elaborate plaster moldings

  • Smooth curves and ovals in windows, door frames, and ceilings

10 features of federal-style homes, including symmetrical facade and four or six windows
Photo: Marje / E+ / Getty Images

Pros and Cons of Living in Federal-Style Home

Buying and caring for a historic home is a wonderful privilege, but also a big responsibility. If you live in a Federal-style home, it means that it's been cared for and restored since the early 18th century, if not before. Living in one comes with its ups and downs.

Pros

The fine-tuned craftsmanship and groundbreaking architectural features of the Federal home paved the way for Greek revival and colonial revivals across the country. If you restore and maintain its original molding, you'll need very little to set your home apart from your neighbor's.

Also, its symmetrical and straightforward structure can be a bit easier to maintain than, say, a Queen Anne home, with multiple spires and cupolas. While the structure itself clearly needed insulation, HVAC, plumbing, and electrical upgrades, most homes were built to last.

Cons

Maintaining a historic home may require a bit more flexibility in your budget and schedule. You'll likely need to get an okay from your local historic commission before making major alterations. An older home also often means higher insurance costs and the help of a specialized team familiar with the time period.

Whether you're poking around the Eastern Seaboard for a historic home or strolling by the row homes of Philadelphia, you're bound to spot Federal-style architecture around each corner. Call a local home restoration expert the moment you need to update your Federal home without risking its original ingenuity.

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