Federal Architectures Lasting Appeal

by : Joshua Keen

Federal architecture is one of the most easily recognizable building styles in the eastern United States. Many of the nation's most famous buildings are done in this style, as are a large percentage of houses along the Eastern Seaboard. With its emphasis on symmetry and classic decorative features Federal architecture also evokes a variety of similar styles such as Neo-classical and Greek Revival.

Owning a Federal-style home usually means owning a piece of U.S. history. Many homes in this style were built during the post-revolutionary era between the late 1700s and the 1830s, while the nation was shaping its identity. It's a testament to the architectural soundness and building quality of the time that many of these buildings are still still occupied and in fine condition. Cities with large original Federal-home collections include Annapolis, Maryland, Savannah, Georgia, Castine, Maine, and Salem, Massachusetts. New England port cities, in particular, tend to have the highest percentage of Federal-style homes. Population booms after the revolutionary war helped produce many of the old Federal homes, while long periods of slow development helped extend their lives until they became recognized and protected for their classic appeal.

Federal architecture is characterized by its spacious, rectangular designs, and simplicity. The style calls for symmetry, and homes built in the style are usually identical on either side of the central doorway. Even Federal row houses, common in cities like Philadelphia and Boston, come close to achieving complete symmetry, and sometimes even function with a central doorway for all residences. Unlike many modern-styled homes, Federal homes usually include a full second floor, and sometimes a third story attic. Roofs on federal homes are sometimes shielded by a balustrade, and are often hipped, with slopes on all four sides. Facades and outer walls are generally flat, broken only by porches or pillared entrances, and windows usually have small panes, due to the high cost of making large sheets of glass at the time - windows on these homes are also commonly equipped with shutters.

Patriotism also played a role in the development of Federal architecture. Homes built in this style were among the first to feature the American eagle motif, and helped popularize it throughout the nation. As well, similarities in Federal architecture to Greek and Roman building styles, like the more bold Neo-Classical style, represented a conscious effort by Americans to link their new nation with the great democracies of the past.

Federal architecture was the first of many great building styles developed in the U.S., and it remains one of the most distinct and popular.