Re-thinking a Federal Style Facade

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Bruce Wentworth, AIA, is a practicing architect whose
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“I live in 20 year old three story Federal style residence that was designed to emulate the homes in this city’s historic district. I’m interested in modifying the front façade by introducing a more pronounced front entrance, larger windows, a new window above the front door, and front-facing dormers on the top floor tucked under a side-gabled roof. While my home is not strictly ‘historic’, I am conscious of its architectural intent and am looking for some guidelines that will help me make style-appropriate changes.”

- SB, Fairfax, VA


You are wise to research first, since the homes you refer to are among the real exemplars of Federal style (sometimes called the Adam style)—a language which dominated the American architecture from 1780 to 1840.

Some historic context is relevant: this is the period in which American independence was firmly established and our unique system of governance was being developed. Continuity with English tradition was one of American architecture’s abiding preoccupations; so too, it’s desire to be associated with even older civilizations.

How made to order, then, the ideas of Robert Adam (1728–1792), a popular British architect, whose work was heavily indebted to ancient Greek and Roman forms.

In its essence, Federal is the style of a young, ambitious nation pointing confidently to its future. Pedimented windows, an entablature with a frieze, the occasional portico find their origin in antiquity, yet Adams was the voice of a decidedly Anglocentric sensibility that, on American soil, found an identity of it’s own– one proved more practical and adaptable than its European cousin.

It may be the box-like simplicity of the principal subtypes that explains why Federal style homes are found everywhere from New England’s seaport towns to Savannah, Georgia to Georgetown and Alexandria, VA. While the roof types vary from side-gabled to center-gable to hipped, the core configuration is a box two or more rooms deep with doors and windows arranged in strict symmetry. Hence, the style adapts easily to varied settings. Some of the most frequently touted Federal-style residences in Greater Washington include Woodlawn Plantation (1805) in Virginia, and Tudor Place (1815) and Decatur House (1819), in Washington, D.C.  Within the City of Fairfax good examples are the Draper house (1820), Gunnell House (1832), Ratcliffe-Allison house (1812) all are on Main Street. On Chain Bridge Road you will find the Fairfax Court House (1820) and the Ford Building (1835).

There are also instances of larger structures– modified with wings or attached dependencies, or even both. You’ll also find elaborate curved or polygonal floor plans such as with the Octagon House, built in 1801 in Washington DC (1799 New York Avenue, NW).

Making Changes

As you undertake your research, keep in mind that Federal-style design elements are usually understated. Exterior decoration, for example, is generally confined to a porch or entry element. Compared to a Georgian style house, the columns and moldings are narrow and humble.

Also, Federal-style decoration showcases geometrical concepts. Elliptical, circular, and fan-shaped motifs formed by fluted radiating lines are common. One of the oldest American examples of such flourishes is on the dining-room ceiling of Mount Vernon. Executed in plaster, the design contains an ornamental border festooned by corn husks and a central rosette.

Some other important considerations:

The building materials in Federal-style structures vary with location. The homes of the Northeast were typically clapboard. Southern houses were often brick, as are most of the homes in the urban north where fireproofing was desired.

Hip roofs capped by a balustrade, simple gable shapes (such as those on Federal buildings in The City of Fairfax), and even roofs with a center gable crowned by a front façade pediment, are among the most popular Federal roof forms. Dormers often pierce the roof to bring light and space into an attic.

Windows are never grouped in the Federal-style house, but arranged individually in strict horizontal and vertical symmetry. Typically, on a large home, the front windows are five-ranked, although there are examples of three and seven-ranked windows. Palladian-style windows are often used in gables as an architectural flourish. Windows are usually double-hung wood sashes with the top sash held in place by metal pins. Thin wooden muntins divide the window into small window lights (panes). Generally, the windows feature six over six lights, although nine over nine and other configurations can also be found.

Befitting its importance, especially when centered on a symmetrical façade, the front door of a Federal home is usually the most decorated part of the exterior. On this score, a semicircular fan light above the door, with or without flanking sidelights, is a favorite device as you will see during your walks. A doorway’s surround might also include ornate molding or a small entry porch. Decorative moldings, such as tooth-like dentils, are often used to emphasize cornices.

Bruce Wentworth, AIA is the principal of Wentworth, Inc. a metro area residential design and remodeling firm that offers residential architecture, construction and interior design. Send questions to or call 240-395-0705.