What Is Federal Architecture?

Federal townhomes

pgiam / Getty Images

Take a drive to nearly any large East Coast city and you'll be surrounded by beautiful examples of Federal-style architecture. Highly popular in the late 1700s and early 1800s, Federal architecture is also known as Adams' architecture, named after a sibling architect duo that popularized the style in Britain. This classic architectural style is a form of Georgian style, the principle design of the colonial period.

But Federal architecture, while similar to colonial-style homes, has a few obvious differences that really sets it apart.

Key Elements of Federal Architecture

Federal architecture is easily recognizable by its symmetry and geometric elements. Most Federal homes are square or rectangular in shape and two or three stories high. While some Federal homes have since been modified with added wings and stories, traditionally Federal homes are only two rooms deep (but you may sometimes find oval or circular rooms as well).

The exteriors of most Federal homes are typically understated. While there are some ornate elements that incorporate brass and iron, the outside of a Federal home is fairly simple, and decoration is usually kept to the porch or entryway area.

Federal Architecture Windows

In Federal homes, windows are rarely grouped but are rather laid out in a vertical or horizontal line and are typically five-ranked. The use of Palladian-style windows is common as well and often acts as the only real decoration or embellishment on the exterior of the home.

One notable feature of a Federal home is the use of an elliptical fanlight window over the front door. This motif is also often found elsewhere throughout the Federal home, such as on ceilings inside these houses.

Federal style home made of brick

buildingsofamerica / Instagram

Common Federal Architecture Materials

Federal-style architecture materials differ by city and state. In many northern areas near the sea, homes are made primarily with clapboard, but in the city, brick is far more common. During the period when they were built, brick offered these urban homes a degree of fireproofing that wasn't as necessary in seaside homes.

The Entrance of a Federal Home

While there's rarely a front porch attached, the entryway to a Federal home often paints a picture of wealth. The design of the entry may be simple, but the ornamentation and decoration around it are usually somewhat grander. For example, you might find an elliptical fanlight above the door that may or may not have lights flanking either side. Federal entrances also often have ornate decoration around the doorway, such as molding or iron balconies. Brass hardware is often incorporated on doors and entryways, and cornices may be emphasized with eye-catching molding.

The Roof of a Federal Home

Most Federal homes have hipped roofs with simple gable shapes. You'll also often find dormers placed on a Federal-style roof to help add natural light to upper floors and attic spaces.

Pros and Cons of Buying a Federal Home

Living in a Federal-style house brings with it a sense of classically American charm and history. And if you are lucky enough to live in a region where Federal architecture was popular, you'll likely come across many of these houses. But living in a historic home often comes with its own headaches and hassles.

  • You will likely always have to hire a professional for any work done on the house. Finding a qualified craftsman can be difficult (but your local historical preservation society may be able to help you) and more expensive than other contractors.
  • To preserve the hand-carved details and delicate elements, Federal homes often need updated paint jobs more often than newer homes.
  • Modernizing a Federal home may be difficult. If you are hoping to cut through walls or tear down rooms, you'll probably want to steer clear of a Federal home. Most architects won't sacrifice the integrity of a historic home such as a Federal house, so you're better off finding a newer build to renovate.

Famous Examples of Federal Architecture

  • The Massachusetts State House: Built in 1798, this building (designed by Charles Bulfinch) is in Beacon Hill.
  • The University of Virginia: You'll see elements of Federal architecture throughout this university.
  • The Davenport House: This historic site in Savannah was built in 1820 and is one of the best preserved examples of Federal architecture in the south.