As a native New Englander, I can’t help but adore autumn. Humidity vanishes to reveal the bluest of skies, foliage becomes a kaleidoscope of brilliant yellow, orange and red, and brisk temperatures prompt us to pull our favorite cardigan from the shelf and head outdoors to enjoy the spectacular scenery. Strolling through the historic Colonial neighborhoods in my hometown of Newport, Rhode Island ranks among my favorite fall pastimes.
Whenever I pass by a lovingly preserved home built around the time our forefathers framed the Constitution, I tend to time travel. I try to imagine the groundswell of excitement that surrounded the construction of homes during the brave decades that followed the American Revolution. Federal Period homes and their Neo-classical motifs such as urns, swags, dentils, ellipses and eagles, particularly serve as poignant reminders of the patriotism that swept our young nation. What an extraordinary era. Politicians were drawing inspiration from Ancient Greece and Rome to form a democracy and style makers were looking towards antiquity to find design cues from treasures unearthed in Herculaneum and Pompeii.
The most prized Federal Period architecture and furnishings were fashioned by a trifecta of talents. Scottish architect, Robert Adam designed symmetrical buildings with simple facades and understated interiors. And cabinet-makers, George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton, crafted furniture that dramatically departed from previously popular Rococo pieces. Hepplewhite and Sheraton tables, chairs, secretaries, mirrors and beds boasted graceful lines, delicate forms, contrasting veneers, and decorative inlays.
Fine examples of Federal Style homes built between 1780 and 1830 still preside in many seaports along the East Coast including Newport, R.I.; Newburyport, Massachusetts; Mystic, Connecticut; and Charleston, South Carolina. Federal homes in the north were typically constructed of wood, while Southern homes were made of brick. Exterior elements that typify the period are a five bay symmetrical facade, paired brick or stone chimneys, six-over-six double hung windows, wood paneled entry door, pediment, and a semicircular or elliptical fan light above the door with or without flanking sidelights. The interiors feature four square rooms, central hallway, straight stair case, wide planked floorboards, wide planked sheathing and post and beam framing that form a rigidly rectangular house. Wood burning fireplaces with simple mantels remind us of where patriots cooked and how they warmed their homes long before there was central heat.
Federal Period furnishings abound in antique venues and newer designs influenced by the period can easily be found in the home decor realm. I’ve asked some of my friends in the design industry who have a penchant for the Federal Period to share their insights and some designs that will imbue your home with this time honored style.
Wallpaper gained popularity in American homes during the Federal Period. Farrow & Ball is highly regarded for wallpapers made using traditionally created paint, giving them a unique tactile texture. Sarah Cole, Director of Farrow & Ball, explains why the Federal Style is timeless. She says, “The Federal Style in interiors is enduring because it’s classic in its nature. The simple, delicate style and muted color palette make it timeless as well as easy to live with. The Federal look appeals because it’s a classic American style that continues to upgrade and beautify homes today.”
Sarah adds, “A muted color palette is synonymous with the Federal Style. Soft and neutral walls appear against simple, white woodwork and trimmings, which helps to create the modest and understated look. Bold and elaborate patterns and designs are reserved for furniture and accessories, which portray the proud and celebratory elements of the Federal Style. At Farrow & Ball we’re renowned for our muted neutral tones, and these work well for creating a modern twist on the Federal look. By using high quality ingredients our colors are soft but rich in pigment, meaning they are sympathetic to the eye and have a timeless quality. Neutrals Off-White and Slipper Satin create a classic, warming feel, while Ammonite and Cornforth White are greyer in tone. Soft and delicate blues and greens like Skylight and Green Ground also work well. Intricate and classic wallpaper designs Ranelagh and St. Antoine in subtle color ways can be used to create a beautiful, classic look synonymous with the Federal Style. “.
During the early 19th century homeowners relied on candles and whale oil lamps to illuminate their homes. Although their options were limited, their enthusiasm for regal design was boundless. Authentic Designs has mastered the art of creating electrified Federal Style lighting with concealed wiring. Based in West Rupert, Vermont, Authentic Designs handcrafts Early American and Colonial lighting fixtures in their workshops located in a rural mill. Company President Michael Krauss and his staff draw inspiration for their designs from private collectors, historic buildings, museums, auction houses and antique dealers. All of their chandeliers, sconces, wall lanterns, post lanterns, floor and table lamps are fabricated in brass, copper, terne and American hardwoods. Visit their showroom or peruse their website and you’ll quickly understand why Federal Style lighting has transcended time. [/onehalf]
A distinction between formal living spaces and informal living spaces is another design trend that evolved during the Federal Period. Chris Sy, Vice President at Carlisle Wide Plank Flooring explains, “Prior to 1789, most New England homes had very wide pine floors ranging in widths from 12”- 30”. Even if the house had greater flourish in areas such as entry ways, or staircases, or trim details, it seems that the floors were still a practical application of wide boards. In the early 1800s, however, which is moving into the middle of the Federal era — flooring become a bit more of a design element and was thought of differently depending on the room. In the early stages of Federal Style, it might have just been the front parlor or sitting rooms, where one would entertain guests, that you began to see single width floor…let’s say all 12″. This refinement reflected the fact that these areas of the home were more formal than the back two rooms of the lower floor — and certainly more formal than the upstairs rooms where random width planks were still used.”
For over 23 years, Dan Cooper has traveled throughout the United States and Canada consulting and lecturing on historic floor coverings for museums, state capitols, governor’s mansions and private residences. He currently represents The English Wilton Company of Portland, Maine. Dan says, “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Federal interiors is that they where furnished with room-sized oriental rugs laid on polished hardwood floors; a persisting conceit that dates to the Colonial Revival of the late 19th century. In truth wall-to-wall Brussels, Wilton and Ingrain carpets were fitted, and these were boldly colored and ornately patterned. Woven in classical and foliate design elements, these luxurious floor coverings were the foundation for the surprisingly fanciful interiors of the period. Hot oranges and reds were juxtaposed with bright blues and stoney-grey architectural designs appeared on yellow grounds with multi-colored floral sprays.”
You don’t have to live in an authentic Federal home to appreciate the style. Every space in your home has the potential to be accentuated by the elegant designs. Why not select a Federal Style wallpaper for a powder room, wide planked flooring for an entry hall, boldly colored carpet for a bedroom, or pendant lighting for a kitchen? The possibilities are endless.
The Daily Basics is very excited to introduce you to our new contributor, Cheryl Hackett. Cheryl has been writing and styling for books and magazine publications for over 25 years. Living in Newport, RI has fed her passion and interests toward historical architecture. You are in for a treat as Cheryl plans to share the basics of historical architecture so you can incorporate them into your restoration, re-creation or just to feed your hunger for a good read!
Cheryl also wrote, Newport Shingle Style, which addresses those houses built during the Guilded Age by such notable architects as Stanford White, George Champlin Mason and Richard Morris Hunt.
Cheryl and her partner, architect John Grosvenor, are restoring their own early Federal home in Newport, Rhode Island. Read their adventures in her blog, Homes of the Brave.