The Federal Style

    The Federal Style takes its name from the era in American history which shares this name. This historical period (1783-1815) was of extreme importance for the establishment of the United States; it saw the end of the revolution, the creation of Articles of Confederation, and finally the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights. It was personified in the great men of the time, founding fathers such as George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, all of whom transformed their ideological beliefs into a blueprint for a nation. In the wake of the fervor surrounding the formation and shape of the new country, the founding fathers sought to create a national identity to bind the new republic and its citizens together. For this, they looked to the same source that had given them so much inspiration during the quest for independence--the great ancient society, Rome. Seeking to endow the nation with the attributes that had made Rome the great society of antiquity, the federal fathers looked to the ancient city as a model for their own nation's government, education, and arts.

    In 1785, Thomas Jefferson, in extoling the beauty of the Maison Carree (fig. 1), the first century BC temple in southern France which served as the inspiration for his new Virginia Capitol building in Richmond (fig. 2), said: "We took for our model what is called the Maison Quarree of Nismes, one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful and precious morsel of architecture left us by antiquity. It was built by Caius and Lucius Caesar, and repaired by Louis XV, and has the suffrage of all the judges of architecture who have seen it as yielding to no one of the beautiful monuments of Greece, Rome, Palmyra and Balbec, which late travelers have communicated to us. It is very noble beyond expression, and would have done honor to any country, as presenting to travelers a specimen of taste in our infancy, promising much for our maturer age." 
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fig. 1 Maison Carree, Nimes, France fig.2, Capitol Bldg, ca. 1790, Richmond, Virginia
By using architecture in the manner described by Jefferson, as a national symbol of taste, the ancient style of Rome gave influence and authority to the young nation's domestic and civic architecture, as well as foreshadowed its aspirations for the 19th century. It was fitting and natural that the first architectural style to emerge in the young American republic was Roman in origen--the neo-classical Federal Style.

The American Federal Style is directly related to the mid-eighteenth century architecture of England and the Adam Brothers, who in turn were directly influenced by the architecture of Rome and by archaeological findings which concluded that Roman domestic architecture, especially its interiors, had not been as standardized as many architects had previously believed. Thus, these styles of architecture, both the Adamesque and the American Federal, reflected this realization and were characterized chiefly by an intricate, unique, and singular use of interior space, within a simple, symmetrical, geometrically based Roman cube on the exterior. In Britain, the Adam brothers ushered in a new architectural style, catering to the elite, with their revisionist neo-classical architecture. In the United States, especially in the maritime towns of the Atlantic seaboard, with its close trading ties to England, the Federal Style found its greatest popularity with these wealthy, sea-trading merchants. The American Federal style retained the English interior grace and opulence (see Fig. 3), as well as its singularly unique use of space. However, the exterior became severely plain, employing little, if any, ornamentation (see Fig. 4). This austerity greatly appealed to the Puritan values of New England, where an ostentatious outward appearance would have been frowned upon. There, in the hotbed of political support for the Federalist Party, the Federal Style gained prominance as an architectural expression of the power, wealth, and influence of its members
Fig. 3 Intricate Ceiling Designs of Adamesque Home - 18th&19th Century Fig. 4 Modest, balanced exteriors of 19th Century Federal Style Home; Salem, MA
The stylistic characteristics  that set the Federal Style apart are numerous and include: (any and all architectural terms can be linked to a page of term descriptions) a low pitched or flat roof that was usually concealed behind a balustrade; moldings of a low relief and delicate ornamentation. When a classical order is present (i.e. doric, ionic, etc.) the capital is diminutive and the columns are slender. Emphasis is placed on the central entrance, which is often set apart with a small, one story portico, a crowning fanlight and narrow sidelights. Other ornamentation is primarily based on curved lines, as well as a Palladian window set within a recessed wall arch, and circular or elliptical windows. Interior space is set apart from colonial architecture by the use of asymmetry; the oval is introduced as a room shape and the century-old layout of four square rooms arranged around a central hallway was cast aside.

This new style was ushered in by new heralds, architects who practiced their art not as a trade but as a profession. These heralds, the new breed of American architects, were men such as Samuel McIntyre, William Thorton, and Charles Bulfinch. Their work, in both the domestic and civic spheres of architecture gave the young American nation its identity.