How Do You Know if You Have a Federal Styled Home?

How Do You Know if You Have a Federal Styled Home?

House Tales

Making a Federal Case

by Cheryl Hackett

As a native New Englander, I can’t help but adore autumn. Humidity vanishes to reveal the bluest of skies, foliage becomes a kaleidoscope of brilliant yellow, orange and red, and brisk temperatures prompt us to pull our favorite cardigan from the shelf and head outdoors to enjoy the spectacular scenery. Strolling through the historic Colonial neighborhoods in my hometown of Newport, Rhode Island ranks among my favorite fall pastimes.

Whenever I pass by a lovingly preserved home built around the time our forefathers framed the Constitution, I tend to time travel. I try to imagine the groundswell of excitement that surrounded the construction of homes during the brave decades that followed the American Revolution. Federal Period homes and their Neo-classical motifs such as urns, swags, dentils, ellipses and eagles, particularly serve as poignant reminders of the patriotism that swept our young nation. What an extraordinary era. Politicians were drawing inspiration from Ancient Greece and Rome to form a democracy and style makers were looking towards antiquity to find design cues from treasures unearthed in Herculaneum and Pompeii.

The most prized Federal Period architecture and furnishings were fashioned by a trifecta of talents. Scottish architect, Robert Adam designed symmetrical buildings with simple facades and understated interiors. And cabinet-makers, George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton, crafted furniture that dramatically departed from previously popular Rococo pieces. Hepplewhite and Sheraton tables, chairs, secretaries, mirrors and beds boasted graceful lines, delicate forms, contrasting veneers, and decorative inlays.

Fine examples of Federal Style homes built between 1780 and 1830 still preside in many seaports along the East Coast including Newport, R.I.; Newburyport, Massachusetts; Mystic, Connecticut; and Charleston, South Carolina. Federal homes in the north were typically constructed of wood, while Southern homes were made of brick. Exterior elements that typify the period are a five bay symmetrical facade, paired brick or stone chimneys, six-over-six double hung windows, wood paneled entry door, pediment, and a semicircular or elliptical fan light above the door with or without flanking sidelights. The interiors feature four square rooms, central hallway, straight stair case, wide planked floorboards, wide planked sheathing and post and beam framing that form a rigidly rectangular house. Wood burning fireplaces with simple mantels remind us of where patriots cooked and how they warmed their homes long before there was central heat.

Exterior elements that typify the Federal period are:

a five bay symmetrical facade

paired brick or stone chimneys

six-over-six double hung windows

wood paneled entry door pediment

semicircular or elliptical fan light above the door with or without flanking sidelights

Interiors feature are:

four square rooms

central hallway

straight stair case

wide planked floorboards

wide planked sheathing

post and beam framing that form a rigidly rectangular house

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