Federal-Style Architecture Facts & History | Style Guide
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Historic Styles

Federal / Adam Style (1780-1840)


The Federal, or Adam, style dominated the American architectural landscape from roughly 1780 to 1840, having evolved from the Georgian style, a principal design of the colonial period. Fundamentally, it was the comparatively progressive European ideas about architecture that prompted this American change in taste. Indeed, many historians today think of the Federal style as merely a refinement of the Georgian style, a view easily justified by a close comparison of the two.

In general, the term Federal connotes the period in American history when the Federal system of governance was being developed and honed. More specifically, it refers to the buildings that went up during the ensuing construction boom in which designers readily incorporated styling variants popular in Europe.

Despite the long fight for independence, Americans were highly influenced by Robert Adam (1728–1792), Great Britain’s most popular architect. Adam’s work drew heavily from ancient Greek and Roman forms. Nonetheless, to this day, its association with America’s hard-won independence lends the Federal style a special cachet with preservationists and architectural enthusiasts.

Federal-style buildings are found in virtually every city on the East Coast, from New England’s seaport towns, where merchant princes grew rich from trade, to Georgetown and Alexandria, Virginia, which were burgeoning in population and importance around the same time. Easily recognizable Federal-style residences-turned-museums in Greater Washington, DC, include Woodlawn Plantation (1805) in Virginia, Tudor Place (1815) in DC, and Decatur House (1819) in DC.

View our portfolio to check out Federal and other style homes the Wentworth team has remodeled in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area.


Typically, a Federal-style house is a simple square or rectangular box, two or three stories high and two rooms deep. Some structures are more prominent, modified with projecting wings, attached dependencies, or both. Occasionally, elaborate curved or polygonal floor plans can be found, such as with the Octagon House (1799) in Washington, DC.

The Beall-Dawson house in the Rockville historic district is an excellent example of Federal style, exemplifying the shift away from the rigid axial symmetry of the Georgian style. Its asymmetrical arrangement of wings and other dependencies owes as much function as form.

Many Federal-style design elements are notably understated. Exterior decoration, for example, is generally confined to a porch or entry element. Compared to a Georgian house, the columns and moldings are narrow and relatively simple.

Federal-style decoration often 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 rinceau border festooned by corn husks and a central rosette.


Not surprisingly, the building materials in Federal-style structures vary by location. The homes of the Northeast typically feature clapboard siding, while Southern houses are often made of brick. Architects in the urban North also commonly built with brick for their fireproofing qualities.

Interested in learning more architectural terminology? Visit our glossary of architecture terms and definitions.

Federal Design-Build Services in Washington, DC, MD & VA

If you live in a Federal-style house, you probably appreciate the uniqueness and charm that only exist in historic buildings. You may not want to move, but what if you crave a larger kitchen, extra bathroom, or updated materials? Wentworth can meet your needs! Our design-build team specializes in the Federal style, so rest assured that we’ll keep the original design in mind as we update your home for 21st-century living. Here are some of the projects we can complete:

  • Federal home remodeling: Do you want to replace worn finishes, convert a bedroom into a home office, or completely redo the kitchen? Whatever you have in mind, the Wentworth team can make it happen. Our goal is to improve your quality of life while staying true to the original Federal design.
  • Federal home additions: Perhaps you’ve always wanted an attached garage, sunroom, or other additional living spaces. We carefully design and build every historic home addition to look like it has always been there.
  • Federal interior reconfigurations: The closed-off, low-ceilinged rooms popular 200 years ago no longer hold up. Let Wentworth reconfigure your interior! We can knock down walls, add or move staircases, eliminate wasteful hallways, and adjust room sizes to make your living space more functional.
  • Custom Federal detailing: Are you hoping to replace damaged pillars, add a stair railing, or incorporate arched doorways? Trust the Wentworth team to stay within the confines of the Federal style when adding these beautiful embellishments to your home.
  • Federal interior design services: Furnishing a Federal-style home isn’t always easy. Do you need help selecting paint colors, materials, furniture, and accessories? Wentworth’s interior design team can help you strike the right balance between historical accuracy and modern comfort.
  • Facade enhancements in the Federal style: Most traditional Federal homes have quite simplistic exteriors. Whether you want to refresh the existing materials or add enhancing shutters, dormer windows, or a covered porch, Wentworth is the remodeling company to call. We’ll use our knowledge of the Federal style to recommend improvements that boost curb appeal while remaining historically accurate.

Browse photos of the Federal-style homes and other historic buildings we have renovated in the Washington, DC, area. If you’re ready to discuss your home renovation ideas, contact us today!

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Wentworth recreate facade elements?

Many Federal-style homes in the region are long in the tooth. When exterior elements show their age, our specialists work closely with you to determine whether these elements can be preserved or whether it is best to recreate and replace the feature. If replacement is warranted, our dedicated craftsmen are experts at creating facade enhancements that perfectly match the original.

How difficult is it to replace wood shutters?

Wood shutters are a “nice touch” that can enhance the exterior of Federal-style homes. When choosing shutters, durable woods are preferable to any plastic. Wood shutters create an elegant, classic appearance that will resist damage from the sun, wind, and other elements.

How long does it take to renovate a Federal-style home?

It depends on the age of the home, the complexity of the requested work, and any underlying structural issues with the foundation, plumbing, electrical, or masonry. Before breaking ground, our teams will thoroughly assess your home’s condition, prepare a comprehensive report of the work required, and provide an estimated timeline for completion.

Is securing permits for renovations in Washington, DC, and other communities necessary?

Depending on the work required, it may be. Homeowners in DC must secure permits for new construction, additions, demolition, and many alterations and repairs. As part of our services, we will secure the required permits and ensure compliance with the applicable building codes, historic building requirements, and safety standards.

Should I upgrade the lighting in my Federal-style home?

Upgrading the lighting within Federal-style homes is a cost-effective strategy for modernizing the ambiance within the room. The design and layout of most spaces make it possible to tactfully and discretely insert layered lighting to enhance functionality, security, and safety.

How common is asbestos in Federal-style homes?

Most Federal-style homes in the area were built long before asbestos was used as a common building material. Thus, it is not common in many homes. However, it may be present in homes that underwent renovations between 1930 and the late 1970s. If we find asbestos during our site assessment, we will take the appropriate steps to remove it from the home safely and efficiently.

Schedule a consultation with our Chevy Chase, MD remodelers!

“ I was most satisfied with the quality of work completed by Wentworth..I was concerned we were doing something appropriate for the current house, and they explained everything very well and treated us well."  ”

J.R., Silver Spring, MD (GuildQuality)