The Federal Style Explained
We recently published a detailed report of the Federal style houses which GVSHP has helped to get landmarked, listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, or both. This architectural style for houses prevailed between the Revolutionary War and about 1835, and derived from the English Georgian style following a classical vocabulary. In Classic New York, Ada Louise Huxtable described the Federal style as refined and decorous, “the architecture of good breeding and good manners.”
To help understand and appreciate the Federal style and its characteristics, here is a detailed explanation of the style as applied to the New York City row house.
The beginning of the 19th century was a prosperous time for New York City, and housing was in great demand by the City’s rapidly expanding population. The row house was a favored dwelling type in urban areas such as New York where land values were high. Often built with party walls between the houses, no space was wasted. These houses were built by carpenters and masons and professional row house builders with a crew of workmen, each of whom performed their own specialty, whether bricklaying, cellar digging, or plastering. Architects were not typically employed in the design of the ordinary row house. For information on architectural style, builders relied on builders’ guides or pattern books, frequently authored by architects, which described construction methods and illustrations of elements such as doors, windows and cornices.
The Federal row house was modest in scale and restrained in ornament. The front of the Federal house was usually clad in red brick, typically laid in what is known as a Flemish bond (bricks are laid alternating the long side and short end showing). Brownstone and marble were used at the door surrounds and window lintels and sills. Sitting on a raised basement of brick or brownstone block, row houses from this era were typically two and a half stories in height, three bays wide and had a pitched roof with dormers. A brownstone stoop led to the entry at the parlor floor level with a service entry below to the raised basement. Occasionally one still sees today the beautiful ironwork at the stoop rail, newels and area way fence that adorned the front of these row houses, usually with pineapple, pinecone or acorn finials, such as at 203 Prince Street. The entry surrounds, usually the most decorative element of the whole exterior, featured leaded transom lights and often side lights. Fanlight transoms are seen in Federal houses built during the 1820’s and early 1830’s, such as at 57 Sullivan Street. Other ornament seen at the doorway could include classical pilasters, entablatures and egg and dart molding.
Windows at the first and second floor were the same size, usually six-over-six double hung, and shutters were common. Ornament on the lintels over the windows was minimal. Cornices at the roofline provided a casing for the gutter and like the rest of the elements of the row house, they were simply ornamented. The roofs of these dwellings were either side gable (a pitched roof with the top ridge parallel to the front elevation) or gambrel (a pitched roof with a shallower slope above a steeper one), typically with two roof dormers. Most pitched roofs of Federal houses were replaced in later years by third and fourth story additions with flat roofs.
In the late 1820’s the City’s burgeoning, wealthy merchant class applied the style to their homes which were considerably grander than the modest row house previously seen. Often built as free-standing mansions, these houses also featured more elaborate entry surrounds as well as windows which extended to the floor level often seen in Greek Revival rowhouses with iron guardrails or balconies (see 4 St. Mark’s Place). The decline of the Federal style was gradual and some row houses were built in a combination of Federal and Greek Revival styles during the transition period during the 1830’s, such as 7 Leroy Street.
After this was posted, it became part of our series, “What Style Is It?”