A large federal-style brick building with many windows in rows.

What Is A Federal-Style House, And Should I Buy One?

January 24, 2024 5-minute read

Author: Katie Ziraldo

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When you’re in the process of buying a house, there are a lot of different home styles to consider. From a Tudor to a Craftsman to a Colonial, each home style has its own distinct features. One of the most popular and enduring home styles is the Federal-style house.

But what design elements define a Federal-style house, and how do you know if they’re right for you? Let’s go over everything you need to know about a Federal-style home.

What Is A Federal-Style House?

A Federal-style house is a popular type of house that has stood the test of time. Easily recognized by their shape and façade, Federal-style houses utilize some of the same elements and materials used in colonial homes while still having their own unique features.

Drawing inspiration from ancient Roman and Greek architecture, examples of the Federal style include the Oval Office of the White House and the famous Hamilton Hall in Salem, Massachusetts.

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What Does The Federalist Architecture Style Look Like?

Federal-style homes are marked by a few key architectural elements, including a square or rectangular shape and Palladian windows and columns.

Despite these easily identifiable characteristics, the Federal home style is often confused with the Colonial style – so let’s break it down in a little more detail.

The red brick exterior of a Federal-style home.

Federal-Style House Exteriors

From the outside, Federal-style houses are simple in their design, often consisting of a brick face and a basic square or rectangular floor plan. These homes are often accented by ornamental features. While there isn’t a front porch and the front door itself is simple, the detailed molding and columns surrounding it are grander than what you might encounter with similar architectural styles.

Fanlight doors are common as well, which include a small, half-oval window above the front door. It’s also common for Federal-style homes to have a hipped roof, or a roof where all four of the sides slope upward to a single peak.

On the rest of the house, window displays are always linear and often Palladian, meaning they feature a centralized, arched window with smaller square windows situated on either side. Dormers, or window structures that typically jut out of a roof, are also common for Federalist-style houses.

All windows, doors and details are symmetrically placed, and geometric shapes are often used.

Living room of Federal-Style home with curved entryways and a balcony.

Federal-Style House Interiors

Despite their rectangular exterior, you’ll find curved lines and shapes inside a Federal-style house. A common characteristic of Federal design is the oval shape, which is frequently used in things like furniture and decor. The oval shape often extends to the shape of the room itself, like in the case of the Oval Office in the White House.

Federal-style interiors also typically utilize simple, muted tones on walls, accented by detailed molding and cornices. Other ornamental details include festoons, wall niches and decorative ceilings.

What Materials Are Used In Building Federal-Style Houses?

Federal-style houses utilize local materials, like clapboard and brick, in their design. This means that the specific materials used in construction vary between locations, leading to regional variations in the style.

Pros And Cons Of Buying A Federal-Style House

Like any type of house, a Federal-style home has its share of benefits and drawbacks. Let’s go over some of the pros and cons of buying a home with Federal architecture and design features.

Pros

  • Unique home design: While they’re simply designed, Federal-style homes have their own unique features and charm.
  • Lots of windows: Federal houses are known for having a lot of vertical windows, which will bring a lot of natural light into your home.
  • Classic, high-quality construction: Federal-style houses are built to last, especially if they’re made from weather- and age-proof materials like brick.

Cons

  • Federal homes may require repairs: Depending on the property’s age, your Federal-style house may require significant repairs. If it’s considered a historic home, you may need to consult a historical preservation specialist before performing any repairs on the house.
  • Can be difficult to secure financing: If the Federal-style house you’re interested in buying is also a historic home, it can be more challenging to get a mortgage. This is because it can be difficult to determine the value of a historic home during the appraisal process. Keep this in mind before moving forward with a federal-style historic house.       

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The History Of Federal-Style Architecture In The U.S.

Federal-style architecture has been around since 1780, though it draws inspiration from Classical-, Colonial- and Georgian-style homes. Classical style architecture, popularized by Andrea Palladio during the Italian Renaissance, was known for Corinthian columns and an emphasis on symmetrical design. The Georgian house style also influenced Federalist architecture and is characterized by symmetrical designs and balanced proportions.

These style elements can easily be found within Federal design as well, though the Federal style wouldn’t come to fruition until 1780.

Following the Revolutionary War, many Americans continued to be deeply influenced by British artists and architects like Robert Adam, whose neoclassical style would shape Federal design. The Federal style was further popularized by architects like Charles Bulfinch and Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson suggested using a Roman temple as the model for the Capitol Building in Richmond, Virginia, and went on to utilize Federal principles in the design of several other well-known buildings. Today, the Federal style can be found in homes, town halls, schools and even churches.

Where Can You Find Federal-Style Homes?

Federal-style homes can be found across America, though they’re most commonly located on the East Coast in New England. On New York’s Bleecker Street, you’ll find several buildings in the Federalist style.

Boston’s Beacon Hill is also well known for its architecture tour, which showcases several Federal-style buildings, including the Massachusetts State House designed by Charles Bulfinch. In Washington, D.C., neighborhoods like Georgetown are also known for their Federal roots.

What Is A Modern Federal-Style House?

Like many other architectural styles, the Federal style has been adapted in recent years as homeowners have sought out ways to retain the charm and history of their house while modernizing it for daily use. Modern Federal-style houses may feature contemporary decor and designs, though the original structure and key Federal features are typically kept intact.

Is A Federal-Style Home Also A Historic Home?

While many Federal-style buildings have been around for more than a century, the homes can be quite old without being considered historic.

Some of these houses may be an authentic example of Federal-style architecture, but not designated historic simply because they aren’t located within a preservation district. This may not be a bad thing, though, as buying a historic home sometimes means jumping through more hoops to obtain financing.

The Bottom Line: Federal-Style Houses Bring History To Life

At its core, Federal-style architecture is rooted in symmetry and simplicity with a dash of ornamentation that sets it apart from similar house styles. Federal-style homes, which first entered the scene in 1780, can still be found sprinkled across the country. For buyers wishing to own a piece of U.S. history, a Federal-style house may be just the ticket.

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Katie Ziraldo Headshot

Katie Ziraldo

Katie Ziraldo is a financial writer and data journalist focused on creating accurate, accessible and educational content for future generations of home buyers. Her portfolio of work also includes The Detroit Free Press and The Huffington Post.