Birmingham, AL

The Homes of America's Early Rich and Powerful

Roxanne Hale

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Public Domain Photo of a Federalist House

What is the Federalist House Style?

If you think white painted houses are all the rage now, you should have seen the “Federals” of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Federalist style architecture first emerged in the newly minted United States between 1780-1830, influenced by British architects Robert and James Adams's work. And just like today, a white exterior was this era’s signature color.

Our founding countrymen modeled our early government buildings on the democracies of ancient Greece and with the republican values of Rome. Their take on this Greco-Roman style is what we refer to as the Federalist style. Famous architects of the time, such as James Hoban, Pierre L’Enfant, Charles Bulfinch, and Samuel McIntire, are responsible for building in this ornamental and classically refined style all along the eastern seaboard.

What did Federalist Style Homes Look Like?

The late 18th and early 19th Centuries were a period of enormous growth in American as our nation took center stage in the world. These confident years were reflected in many of the buildings and homes of this time. The Federalist’s architectural design can best be described as grandly assertive.

Colossal columns support oversized entrances and impressive second-floor balconies at the front of the house. Light yielding fanlights and sidelights grace its front doors. Ovals and arches, often with keystones and shutters, accentuate the windows. Small repeating blocks of molding used in the cornice, called Dentil trim, run the length of the entrance pavilion. There were usually handsome side porches, designed mostly of windows. Quoins, or decorative square blocks of stone, run up the sides of the house. Everything is symmetrical, organized, and perfectly placed. And, of course, in keeping with the original Greek style, these homes were often painted white.

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Sketch of a Modern-Day Federalist Style Home Designed By Barry Delozier, Birmingham Plan Designer

Where can Federalist style homes be found?

Federalist style homes were large and costly to build, and their owners spared no expense in commissioning their construction. Many of these historical homes are commonly found in East Coast communities where America’s earliest wealthy and powerful people resided.

Many fine examples of Federalist style homes dot the map from Boston and Salem to famous streets like Bleeker and Broadway in New York City and down to Charleston, South Carolina. Anywhere you could find a wealthy industrial port, you could also see this type of architecture.

And don’t forget the most famous Federalist style house of all, The White House, in Washington, DC.

In small towns across the country, local governments also adopted the Federalist style for their City Halls and public buildings. Its design elements were also implemented in hospitals too.

What has become of Federalist Homes and their design elements?

Some of these original majestic 18th Century homes still stand today. It's common to see the oldest of these buildings donated to Historical Commissions, used as museums, or serving as educational buildings.

The Federalist style made a comeback in a period now referred to as the Classical Revival. Its resurgence was due to the heavily attended and photographed World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, held in Chicago. The expo featured a number of classically styled buildings, which set off a renewed interest in this type of architecture. Here in Birmingham, Alabama, the community of Norwood, established in 1910 during the revival, features many streets of Federalist style homes.

The style is currently out of favor, as homeowners prefer relaxed house plans, but some elements remain popular. Broad porches with columns and formal foyers are the most common design elements still in use. (Everyone loves a side porch full of windows if it can be worked into their house design). Dentil style moldings are used occasionally. Quoins briefly came back in style in the late 1990s, but their popularity soon waned.

Summary

The impressive architecture of Federalist style homes tells the story of an emerging and confident country. Standing on the porch of a Federal, it easy to get a sense of an owner who felt “large and in charge” in their world. They are bold, magnificent, and grandly assertive.

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Roxanne Hale, owner, and broker of Arthouse has spent over 20 years in the real estate business. Here you'll find a collection of stories about buying and selling real estate & home building advice, housing history, and architecture & design tips. Oh, and some fun personal stories every now and then!

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