What Is a Federal-Style House?

Federal style home

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If you love historic homes and classic architecture, you could probably spot a Federal-style home from a mile away. A popular style on the east coast, Federal architecture is often considered the first house in the newly-founded United States of America. Defined as the period between 1780 and 1830, Federal-style architecture is chock full of history.

What Is a Federal-Style House?

Built between the period between 1780 and 1830, Federal architecture is typically found on the east side of the United States and is distinguished by its flat, brick exterior, symmetrical style and classic details borrowed from the Georgian period.

Whether you're hunting for your own Federal-style home or you simply love the history of architecture, here's what you need to know, directly from an expert.

Meet the Expert

Cathy Purple Cherry, AIA, LEED AP is Principal and Owner of Purple Cherry Architects, a wholly integrated design firm started in 1994 and located in Annapolis, Maryland.

Read on for a quick history lesson in this beautiful style of architecture.

What Makes a House Federal-Style?

Similar in style to the Colonial home, Federal-style architecture is rarely found outside of the east coast. According to Cherry, homes are most frequently found in port cities such as Charleston, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City. There are a few key features of a Federal home, but typically they are flat, row-house style brick houses in cities rich with history.

"The exterior is typically brick with curved steps leading up to a simple door with extensive ornamentation on the surround," explains Cherry.

Many features were borrowed from Georgian architecture including the flat facade and symmetrically hung windows. Here are some of the key features to recognize a Federal-style house.

Federal style home

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Exterior:

  • A flat facade
  • Often constructed of brick
  • Simple masonry lintels
  • Typically features a series of flat planes rectangles
  • Usually symmetrical
  • Often understated, but can have a few ornate details

Interior:

  • Features a center hall
  • Often has a grand staircase in the front of the home
  • The trim is usually simple but can be ornate

Though they can vary a bit, Federal-homes are typically easy to spot.

"Federal homes are often rectangular-shaped boxes, two or three stories, and with symmetrical façades," says Cherry.

If you spot a tall brick home that was constructed in the late 18th century, chances are it is a Federal-style house.

The History of Federal-Style Homes

The Federal home really encompasses American history in many ways. Built during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this style really came to be shortly after the creation of the United States. After the Revolutionary War, American cities really began to become defined and port cities grew in both population and scale.

Federal homes are most often spotted in port cities where the industry was booming and architects were focused on creating efficient homes in well-planned out city developments. Cities such as Philadelphia as well as Salem, Massachusetts, are full of Federal homes rich with history.

Looking for the oldest Federal-style house in the country? The White House itself is actually a Federal home, though it is a bit more ornate than most Federal houses of the time (of course). The large columns flanking the entrance of the white house are typical of fancier Federal homes of the time.

Brick federal style house

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What's the Difference Between Federal and Georgian Homes?

Federal-style homes are often confused with Georgian-style homes. But there are a few ways to tell the difference between these two classic styles. While both feature a very symmetrical exterior and many of the same materials, Federal-homes are typically more understated. They lack the ornate details of Georgian homes and are usually more refined.

Federal-style homes are typically a bit more formal, as well. They usually have three-part or Palladian windows and the front door is often flanked with sidelights to give it a more elaborate and stately look.

Federal style house

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What Interior Design Style Works Best in Federal Homes?  

Trying to decorate a Federal-home but worried you'll take away from its history? Cherry suggests keeping things simple and traditional. Opt for vintage pieces that are understated and classic. Incorporating elements of Victorian style and even Colonial farmhouse can be a great way to keep the historic look and feel of the home.

While you can make nearly any color palette work in this type of home, we love sticking to more neutral colors in this case. Fill the space with rich wood and red tones and keep it light and airy with warm cream or beige throughout.

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