Federal style: Understated elegance
Once the Federal style was the design of choice for many affluent Americans.
By Les Christie, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Americans like the feeling that, in the house they own, they have a slice of history.

In the South, they could mean paying a premium for an antebellum mansion; in the West, it could be an old adobe homestead. In much of the eastern United States, it often means a Federal style home.

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Understated yet formal, Federal style houses became ubiquitous up and down the East Coast during the post Revolutionary years until about 1830. Many of these refined residences have survived to offer comfort and elegance to their owners today.

The Federal style was based on English neo-classic design, a variation of the Georgian architecture of the 1700s. Characteristic details of Federal homes include American eagle motifs and fanned, Palladian windows. Many of the homes contain round or elliptical windows as well.

Although Federal style city rowhouses often have offset entrances, in their ideal forms, Federal homes sport symmetrical facades with central entranceways and foyers. Sitting rooms and bedrooms lead off from these halls. An equal number of windows flank each side of the door and the windows tend to have small panes, owing to the difficulty of making large glass sheets at the time. The windows are usually equipped with shutters.

Federal roofs, sometimes shielded behind balustrades, are either hipped (sloped on all four sides) or central or side gabled (straight slope from ridge to eave). Facades are fairly smooth, only broken up by small porches. Cornices usually sport decorations, often tooth-like shapes called dentils.

Many Federal type homes were built for the affluent. In some coastal cities, prosperity brought by early trade or manufacturing led to a proliferation of the homes. Some of these towns then fell into a sleepy lethargy, preserving many of the building from the ravages of later redevelopment. Thus Salem, Massachusetts, Castine, Maine, and other New England ports still have sizable Federal-home collections. Annapolis, Maryland and Savannah, Georgia also have preserved many homes in the style.

Even some of the East Coast cities that went through explosive growth after the end of the Federal period still harbor some of these antiques. Downtown Manhattan has a few left, including a block that was displaced when the World Trade Center was originally erected in the 1960s. The small Federals were dismantled and reassembled a few blocks away, where, ironically, they escaped the destruction of 9/11 that took their replacements.

Philadelphia has a big collection of Federal homes in its Old Town and Society Hill neighborhoods. Boston, especially Beacon Hill, and Georgetown in Washington, also boast many Federal houses.

They were also popular in smaller cities, towns, and as farm or estate homes; many rural communities throughout the East have a Federal or two, often on a piece of prime property on a rise or hill. There, their understated but regal symmetry makes a fine effect for passing motorists.

They speak eloquently of the prosperity and optimism that accompanied much of the nation's early years.


Also among the common early-American home styles was the saltbox house. To see just what the heck a saltbox is, click here.

For a look at the Best Places to Live in the United States, click here.

Home prices are slowing but they haven't turned around, at least not in most U.S. metro areas. Click here for a forecast of how real estate prices will hold up in 2006. Top of page

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