Viewing America’s History Through Architecture: The Federal Townhouse of NYC

1820s Federal-style row houses on Harrison Street in NYC

Federal townhouses defined American architecture after the Revolution

As the United States established its independence, American architects embraced a style of building design popularized by Robert Adam, Great Britain’s most prominent architect. After the heavy and grand Georgian-style structures that dominated the colonial period, the building boom that filled the American landscape between 1790 and 1835 was characterized by simplicity in detail and form.

It was fitting that the new nation rejected architecture named after England’s King George III after the Revolution. Its new style – known as Federal architecture for its emergence during the time that the U.S. federal government was born – holds an important place in American history as the first national trend in building design.

Federal’s simple features, small structure, and lack of wasted space quickly cemented its status as the signature style for townhouses in New York City, where land was pricey and the population was exploding. Examples of Federal architecture still stand in the oldest parts of Manhattan, including a townhouse once owned by Alexander Hamilton Jr. in the East Village and the famous mayoral residence, Gracie Mansion.

A federal house plan published by Asher Benjamin in 1816. Image via The American Builder’s Companion via

A federal house plan published by Asher Benjamin in 1816. Image via The American Builder’s Companion via

What defines Federal architecture?

Only buildings erected between 1790 and 1835 are true examples of Federal architecture. If it looks Federal but was built later, it’s either a revival or simply looks similar.

What does Federal architecture look like in New York City?

Manhattan townhouses of the Federal era were designed as plain, flat, square or rectangular boxes, generally two stories high and two rooms deep. Most also have basements and an attic story under the roof lighted by dormer windows. Roof cornices are simple and small and usually have dentil moldings. Symmetrically placed six-over-six windows are common. Many of the houses had large rear yards with a small stable set away from the house, although this feature is generally lost today. Many also were modified to allow commercial use on the ground floor and residences above.

Compared to the Georgian house that predated it, the ornamental design elements of a Federal structure are understated, usually including narrow columns, simple moldings, low stoops that lead to a parlor entrance, and wrought iron handrails and area way fences adorned with pineapple finials, a symbol of hospitality. The entry surrounds are the most decorative element of the exterior, typically featuring leaded transom lights, side lights, classical pilasters and egg and dart molding. Most of the elegance of the Federal design is attributed to the exacting linear placement of the doors and windows on each floor.

What materials characterize Federal architecture?

Most Manhattan Federals are made of red brick laid in Flemish bond. That means each row of brick is laid by alternating the long side and short end showing. Although Federal townhouses were sometimes built with clapboard, brick was considered wiser in cities like New York where houses were crowded so close together that fire could quickly consume entire blocks built of wood. Brownstone and marble were used at door surrounds and in the prominent window lintels and sills, and brownstone blocks typically created the raised basements.

Why did Federal architecture become so fashionable in Manhattan?

Federal design was the perfect solution for the flurry of speculative developments that arose to meet the rapid migration of people to Manhattan in the late 18th century. Its small structure and simple form enabled rows of townhouses to rise relatively quickly, and allowed for individual ownership while still making efficient use of the odd 25’x100’ lots set aside in newer parts of the city like the West Village.

The simplicity of Federal architecture was also easy to manage at a time when builders generally acted as their own architects, working from plan books written by more experienced architects of the time. Grander dwellings were still prohibitively expensive for most people, and Federal architecture could fit any budget by adding ornamental enhancements to reflect the owner’s wealth.

What was the most significant feature of Federal architecture?

Many architectural historians claim that the beautiful wrought ironwork and stunning doorways that mark Federal designs have never been equaled. In fact, the Federal doorway became almost a standardized design in its day, standing out as a hallmark of Manhattan respectability. It typically included a wood entrance door comprised of eight panels with leaded sidelights and a leaded transom light surrounded by rich egg and dart moldings. Sidelights flanked by engaged columns and half-columns in the corners completed the elegant design.

In a city renowned for its diverse architectural designs, it’s hard to imagine that Manhattan was once characterized by row after row of uniform Federal townhouses. Most were demolished over the years to make way for super-sized apartment buildings that could accommodate the city’s ever-growing population; others were re-purposed or turned into tenements.

Fortunately, several carefully preserved Federal townhouses remain in historic neighborhoods like Greenwich Village – or even tucked mid-block on city streets – serving as important examples of the first architectural style to capture the attention of our nation.

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