Not All Rowhouses are Federal Rowhouses

The real estate industry fudges on a lot of topics. Geography is the most common. Desirable neighborhood names have a way of spreading way beyond their boundaries. But one thing that particularly annoys GM is how poorly real estate listings are in understanding historic architectural styles. And nowhere is that weakness more on display than in the way that just about every oldish rowhouse in Georgetown gets called “federal”.

They almost never really are.

GM has written a whole series on the dominant architectural styles in Georgetown, but here’s the quick and dirty version:

Technically speaking, “federal” refers to the short period of architecture that flourished after the Revolution but before the emergence of Greek revivalism in the 1820s. But the federal style is fairly similar to the Georgian style that preceded it, so it’s good enough for government work to throw them together.

So what makes this style?

Look for a paneled front door surrounded by what look like flattened columns (they’re called pilasters). Above the door is often a simple row of three or four small windows. The top of the doorway will be either squared off or have a more elaborate triangular pediment:

The front of the house will have relatively plain windows with a simple lintel (that’s the row of bricks or block of stone across the top). Often the lintel has a keystone in it:

The roof line often has small dentils (little blocks in a row) like this:

This is a tricky point, because other styles use dentils (like Greek revival and Neo-classical) or use elements somewhat like them. But GM will explain that below.

The thing is with federal/Georgian styles and Georgetown, there just aren’t many of them. Yes, Georgetown was founded in 1751 and a bustling port town during the height of these styles. But most of the first generation of homes built in Georgetown were torn down.

The reality is that most homes in Georgetown are actually Victorian. And two Victorian styles stand out in terms of being mistaken for federal: Italianate and Queen Anne.

If you close your eyes and picture the sort of Disney Main Street U.S.A. sort of architecture, you’re probably thinking of Italianate. It was a hugely popular style that reigned from 1840 through 1885.

When trying to identify Italianate houses, above all else the thing to look for is corbels. These a chunky brackets that show up on roof lines like this:

Notice, these corbels kind of look like the dentils of the federal period. But there are some key distinguishing features. Dentils a straight and square. Corbels look like elaborate book ends flipped upside-down. They are also generally larger and more spread out than dentils.

Another clear feature of Italianate rowhouses are the “hoods” over the windows. The may be simple and geometric like those above, or more flamboyant like these:

(Notice the corbels here again. It’s even a bit more confusing that this cornice also has a row of dentils. But between the corbels and the hooded windows make this one clearly Italianate.)

The other style often mistaken for federal is Queen Anne. It’s a little confusing because 99% of all Queen Annes in America are the classic gingerbread style like this:

But there is variant of Queen Annes called “patterned masonry Queen Anne”. They are brick rowhouses, typically with a bay window front, and decorated with shaped bricks like this:

If you’ve got these little bricks-with-golf-ball-shaped-zits, you’ve got yourself a Queen Anne. And a huge percentage of homes in Georgetown are Queen Annes. They were mostly built between 1880 and 1910.

So please real estate industry, learn your architecture! If the home you’re selling is not from the early 19th century, it’s almost certainly not federal!! (In fact, technically, it’s definitely not federal. Any later constructed home displaying similar features is more properly considered colonial revival or neocolonial.)

This has been a public service announcement…

1 Comment

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One response to “Not All Rowhouses are Federal Rowhouses

  1. What an excellent post! Thanks!

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