American Architecture: Federal Style's Elements

Federal home design style comes with another perplexing name. In style, the word “federal” simply indicates the time period (1780–1820) whenever the style, known among design aficionados as the American stage of the Adam style, prevailed from the fledgling United States. The style borrowed heavily from contemporary European influences, especially the English Adams brothers. The brothers had traveled to Italy and are credited with popularizing architectural details from original Roman and Greek structures rather than their Renaissance interpretations.

Where to find it: All along the Eastern Seaboard, from Provincetown, Massachusetts, to Savannah, Georgia.

Why you will enjoy it: If you are an American history buff, you pride yourself on your patriotism and you are attracted to areas like Boston, Georgetown in Washington, D.C., and Savannah, Georgia, this fashion has got your name all over it.

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What Makes It Federal

A symmetrical facade.
The normal form of original federal, or Adam, homes is a very simple box shape, usually two to three rooms deep, with a symmetrical arrangement of doors and windows, especially on the front. Additions to the sides and back are typical.

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A centered gable. The most common embellishment to the very simple box form is that the inclusion of a projecting gable, centered on the home’s entrance. At times the facade beneath the gable, or pediment, stays on precisely the exact same plane as the remainder of the facade, while sometimes it jobs slightly forward.

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Clapboard siding. Federal homes in the northern U.S. tend to get constructed with clapboard siding, often painted white with details such as doors and doors painted black.

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Brick siding. In the southern U.S., or in urban row house variations, these houses tend to be constructed with brick.

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A cornice. Federal-style homes generally highlight the cornice (horizontal trimming that marks the crown of a building element, like a wall or a window) with ornamental molding, most typically toothlike dentils or blocklike projections.

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A fanlight above the door. These semicircular or elliptical windows bring about extra light above paneled doors. They are often accompanied by sidelights (window panes flanking the door) and also an elaborate crown and surround.

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Double-hung windows. Federal-style homes almost always have double-hung windows, typically with six panes per sash. Windows are symmetrically arranged around a central door. The most typical window configuration is five to the next story and four to the first.

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Palladian windows. Named after Venetian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, these three-part windows, with a central lighting capped by a semicircular fanlight and flanked by a pair of sidelights, are typical. They usually appear either on the next floor centered on front door or facing or side gables.

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Other ornamental windows. As well as Palladian windows, semicircular, elliptical or round windows sometimes embellish federal houses, typically under front or side gables.

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A decorative balustrade. A roofline balustrade (a row of repeating supports that hold up a railing), either in addition to the main building or on an inclusion, is another common embellishment. On account of their positioning, these balustrades are typically purely decorative.

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There’s also a townhouse version in federal architecture. Many original Adam townhouses, both attached row houses and narrow detached metropolitan homes, nevertheless exist. They are concentrated in cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, Georgetown and Savannah.

Townhouse developments are becoming increasingly popular as part of an effort to conserve space and ease pedestrian zones. Most such advancements constructed today are modeled on federal style.

Tell us What do you think about the federal, or Adam, style? Are you prepared to adopt it, or would you prefer to admire it from afar?

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