NHC: Federal Architecture, 1780-1830

With the close of the Revolutionary War, Newburyport became poised to reach its height of greatest maritime influence and achieve its greatest wealth.        Because of the French Revolution, the British and the French were busy with their own concerns and the way for expansion to new markets was wide open for American products and for the import of goods from all over the world.      And because of the birth of a new nation, there came a desire to break away from the more British influence.     Ironically, the Federal-style was based on published designs produced in 1792 by the English architect Robert Adam.   Architects were rare in America and pattern books were a common item that local craftsmen would then base their work.     Asher Benjamin took the Adams concept and produced a whole series combining mathematics and graphic images.     Also, adding the new Republic’s mood into their work, notable architects added a uniquely American style.     Men like Charles Bulfinch, Benjamin Latrobe and Samuel McIntire.      A fine Market Squareexample in Newburyport of a Charles Bulfinch design is the Superior Courthouse at the Bartlett Mall.     But the real influence in the City came from Mr. Benjamin’s books which has given Newburyport a consistency and general uniformity in its architecture most strikingly in its Downtown and on Fruit Street & High Street especially on the famed “Ridge”.

The architecture consists of massive (or the illusion of massive) three-storied, four-squared buildings with a hipped roof.      Usually a two-room deep rectangular box, with a raised foundation, a center door, and symmetrical five-bay window placement. Chimneys were not symmetrical.     Blinds became common though not universal on all three floors.Palladian Window     In Newburyport, the most common windows displayed 6 over 6 panes.      In many buildings a Palladian window would be located just above the front entrance.       A portico supported by columns would have a  six-panel door.     Often above would be a semi-elliptical or semi-circular fanlight with flanking sidelights.     This fanlight would most often be spider-like in its design.     Original Federal buildings would have a deck with railing on the roof though most have been removed in the city.

One of the interesting design elements is the third floor windows were smaller than the first and second floors and were matched interiorly by low-ceilings.     

Fine examples of Federal architecture are clearly seen on Fruit, Green, High & State Street and of course, the most famous example of commercial buildings runs northward along State Street past Pleasant Street and all around Market Square.

Characteristic Details:



Usually a central hall plan, five-bay façade arrangement with central front door.     Symmetry of Georgian style retained.     Interior stairs rose from near the front  door straight up to the second.


Often had semi-elliptical or semi-circular fanlight with flanking sidelights.    Frequently decorated by pilasters and/or columns with a flat entablature.    Semi-circular or rectangular porticos were common.    Usually a six-panel door.


Narrow proportions with simple casing and slender mullions.    Often had stone lintels over the windows.


Gable or a shallow hip roof often hidden behind a balustrade.    Tall, slender chimneys appeared at ends of the buildings but rarely symmetrical.


Executed in wood or brick.    Sometimes flat-boards on the front façade with brick on the sides and rear.

Decorative Elements

Simplicity and lightness of detail.    Much of the heavier classical decoration of the Georgian style was refined.

47 High Street

One of the advantages for building owners when it comes to maintaining and restoring worn elements of the Federal style is the presence online and at the Newburyport library of Asher Benjamin’s pattern books.      They come in handy especially when attempting to match the appropriate feature or molding with modern products.       The American Builders Companion pattern book is also available in .pdf format online.

Some diagrams and expanded information is present from the following sources:

Historic New England

Newburyport Preservation Trust

The Salem Handbook

-P. Preservationist

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