Woodlawn Plantation in Alexandria, Virginia
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Built in 1805, Woodlawn Plantation, located in Alexandria, Virginia, is a fine example of Federal style architecture.

Federal Architecture is Simple in Design But Carries Distinction

Federal architecture is a style that emerged in the latter part of the 18th Century in America. Adapted from the popularized Georgian architectural technique originating in England, it was a trendy style that lasted approximately 40-50 years, until Greek Revival style homes became the rage.

Its name originates from the Federalist Era that was taking place in America at the time of the style's origin. Although, the style is also sometimes referred to as "Adam", due to its being highly influenced by Robert Adam, a well-known and highly respected British architect.

Federal style homes are simply designed, but carry distinction. As the American Centuries website notes, these homes were often commissioned by the most wealthiest of people. The characteristics that make up the elements of Federal style architecture reflect modernism for that time and now remain deeply rooted in history.

Exterior Styles Associated with Federal Homes

The exterior look of homes built in the Federal style are perhaps one of its most defining characteristics. Federal homes are typically two or three stories tall. Many homes are two rooms deep, although there are some models that were three rooms deep. The homes were built with a balanced-rectangular construction, a raised foundation, and massive chimneys located on each end of the house.  

Building Materials

Most of the homes in the Washington, D.C. and surrounding areas down to the south were built using bricks. However, homes located in the north to New England, excepting those located in urban cities, were made of clapboard, as Wentworth Studio points out. It was common for Federal houses built of wood to be painted white, with black shutters and trim.

Doors and Windows

A Federal style home's front door is typically a bit more elaborate in style than the overall design of the house. The entry was the place where most embellishments were made. Historic New England notes these are decorated and are often semicircular in design. While the home is designed with a "box-like" look, the structures are very symmetrical, with the windows arranged to be aligned perfectly on each floor. Many of these houses have Palladian windows centered above the front door. Although perfectly balanced and simple in design, this didn't mean elaborate designs were not integrated.

"In addition to Palladian windows, semicircular, elliptical or round windows sometimes embellish federal homes, typically under front or side gables," as Steele Marcoux, of the Houzz website, writes.

Most homes were built with five windows on the second floor and four on the first, but this could vary depending on the size of the home. Some homeowners opted to extend the size of their homes by building additions on each end of the main portion of the house. These were also balanced and built symmetrically. Rear additions were also common during this era.

Interior Trends Associated with the Federal Style

While the exteriors of Federal homes were understated, the interiors were built a bit more elaborate. While still basic and symmetrically balance in design, the sophistication can often be found in the details. In addition, it was very common to find the American Bald Eagle as a decorative theme in these homes.


Creative floor plans, as noted by Historic New England, were built into Federal interiors. These included elliptical and rounded rooms and domed or arched ceilings. The interior was typically more generous with intricate details, including decorative elements carved in wood or cast in plaster. You would find these details on molding, mantels, walls and ceilings.


Visitors to a Federal style home, might find the stair leading to the top floor to be straight up the center, or built along a wall with a curve. The railings are usually very handsome in look and feel.


It was common to see arches in the interior of these homes as one room transitioned to the next. These curves placed a nice balance to contrast with the straight appearance found on the exterior of the homes.

Many prominent citizens in the post-Revolutionary period built Federal style homes, and a number of these early houses still stand proudly today.

Boyhood Home of Robert E. Lee
Credit: Leigh Goessl

Robert E. Lee's Boyhood home is another lasting example of Federal style architecture. This home is located in the Old Town section of Alexandria, Va.