Federal Style Houses


With the end of the Revolutionary War and the establishment of the new Federal government, new architectural styles would would rise to prominence. For the homes of Connecticut’s elite, in the last decade of the eighteenth century and the opening decades of the nineteenth, the Federal style would dominate, as it greatly refined the elegance of the late Georgian style. By the 1820s, another new style would supersede the Federal, the Greek Revival, which emphasized a stricter focus on exactly reproducing the proportions of Classical Greek structures. Unlike the elitist associations of the Federal style, the Greek Revival is considered America’s first truly national architectural style, with examples ranging from large public buildings to the humbler farm houses which survive in considerable numbers throughout the state. But Federal examples were still being produced locally into the 1830s. As with my previous article on Colonial Houses, examples below are of Federal houses that have appeared on this site.


The Federal Style

The Federal style as applied to houses, which became particularly popular among the elite of America’s seaports in the period 1780-1820, has many examples that appeared inland, along the Connecticut River Valley, as well. The Federal style is also known as the Adam style or Adamesque, after the neoclassical architecture practiced by the Scottish architect, Robert Adam and his brothers. Looking primarily to Classical Rome, the style brought a new lightness and delicate refinement to American houses, with more restrained and lacy detailing than on the preceding heavier Georgian homes. Popular elements on Federal houses were semicircular windows, sidelights around doorways, three-part Palladian windows and ornamental moldings. Chimneys tend to be narrower than in Georgian houses and sometimes more irregularly placed as well. The 1808 Kellogg-Eddy House in Newington (Fig. 1) displays many of these typical features. At first glance, it may appear superficially similar to a typical later colonial Georgian house, but the semi-circular window above the doorway and the projecting triangular pediment, supported by columns, marks the house as Federal, as does the Palladian window above the door, the dentil moldings above the windows and under the roof, and the slender chimneys. Another elaborate example of this type of house, with four end chimneys, is the 1799 Jonathan Mix House in New Haven (Fig. 2). Many houses in Connecticut have a design of this type, with either more or less complex variations on the same kind of doorway, like the Asahel Hart House in Berlin, the Savage-Butler Homestead in Cromwell and the Timothy Pitkin House in Farmington, among others.


As a prosperous port city in the early nineteenth century, New Haven would have had many more fine Federal-style homes than are extant today. One very notable house which does survive is the very elaborate Timothy Bishop House (1815) (Fig. 3), which has an ornate triangular pediment, tripartite window and columns along the facade.


Architects of the Federal Style

Although there were, as yet, no professional architects, the Federal period was the first time in America that specific builders came into prominence, so that we often know the names of those who created these homes. In 1794, when Oliver Phelps added a new wing onto an earlier Georgian house in Suffield, it was designed by Thomas Hayden of Windsor. Some of the work on the new wing of what is now called the Phelps-Hatheway House, including the carving of the entryway’s Ionic capitals (Fig. 4), was done by Asher Benjamin, soon to become a prominent architect. Hayden was also the builder of one of the state’s greatest examples of Federal architecture, the John Watson House in East Windsor Hill (Fig. 5). Three-story mansions of that type became popular in the great port cities of America (for instance, the Gardner-Pingree House and the Peirce-Nichols House in Salem Mass, both designed by Samuel McIntire). They were less common in Connecticut, but another example is the Jonathan Cowles House in Farmington.


Another notable builder was the British-born William Sprats, who designed Oldgate in Farmington and the Julius Deming House in Litchfield (Fig. 6), which is also considered one of Connecticut’s greatest Federal-style houses.


On a less extravagant scale, the Wethersfield builder Capt. James Francis (whose house still survives), designed or worked on a number of Federal-style houses in town. Francis houses are built of brick, which was not offen used during the Colonial period, but was more common for Federal homes. Surviving examples include the Robert Robbins House (Fig. 7), the Richard Bunce Tavern and the Capt. Daniel Francis House.


More Federal Houses

A grander example of brick construction than the Robbins House is the 1813 Aaron Bissell House in East Windsor Hill (Fig. 8), one of three similar houses built for members of the same family on Old Main Street (the others being the homes of Aaron’s brother, Epaphras Bissell, and son-in-law, Eli Haskell). The Bissell House has four end chimneys and a large and distinctively Federal-style doorway. Another brick example is the Hale-Rankin House in Glastonbury.


Unlike most of the examples used thus far there are also many Federal houses that have a non-symmetrical arrangement of their front elevations. Turning again to the Robbins House (Fig. 7), it’s front door, not unlike that of the Colonial Silas Deane House, is not centered in the front facade. The brick Samuel Millard House, in West Hartford, has a similar sequence of facade bays, but also displays another common feature of Federal style houses: the roof over the front facade, facing the street, is the gable end and has a prominent semicircular window. Many Federal houses, built of both brick and wood, have similar gable ends facing the street, but with three bay facades (an arrangement that will become even more popular in houses of the Greek Revival style). Examples include the Asa Andrews House in Farmington and the Hezekiah Spencer House in Suffield. A particularly elaborate example is the Timothy Cowles House in Farmington (Fig. 9). This extravagant structure displays many features that go right to the heart of the Federal style. It has numerous doors with semicircular windows, and a front facade with an elaborate door and Palladian window above, with a fancily decorated gable end pediment, featuring dentil molding and a prominent semicircular window. The imposing front porch also features delicate and slender columns which, typical of Federal columns, do not look like they could support the weight of the pediment above. The house also has two matching porches on either side, which further contribute to making this one of Connecticut’s most distinctive Federal-style homes.


Many more examples and regional variations can be referenced, from the Edward Shepard and Capt. Jesse Goodrich Houses in Wethersfield, to the Burnham-Dewitt and Hezekiah Perkins Houses in Norwich. As a final example, the brick 1828 house in Glastonbury known as the Parsonage has particularly fine Federal doorway (Fig. 10), a fairly late example from a time when the Greek Revival movement was already changing the architecture of Connecticut Houses.


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