The Vast Majority of Georgetown Homes Are Victorian, Not Federal

Last week, the Washington Post published an article on living in Georgetown. It was a fairly anodyne piece focused on the real estate perspective. But it repeated a fairly common trope that GM tries (and fails) to dispel, from time to time:

Housing types range from condominiums and attached rowhouses to grand estates, many in the Federal and Georgian architectural styles.

This is wrong! There are very few Federal homes in Georgetown, and even fewer (if any) Georgian homes. You can re-read GM’s old series on architectural styles to understand what those terms really mean, but here’s a quick recap:

  • Georgian: a style of architecture that was popular in the late 18th century. It is characterized by (among other things) dentil moldings, square lights (i.e. small windows) over the front door, pilasters beside the door, and double-hung windows with many small panels of glass.
  • Federal: a variation on the Georgian style that arose in America after the Revolution. Shares many of the same features as Georgian, but it distinguished by Palladian windows and fan lights over the door.

You don’t have to have understood anything about those two paragraphs to grasp this more salient point: the Georgian and federal period of architecture ended by 1820. So any home built after 1820 is by definition not either Georgian or federal. And more over, it is almost certainly not stylistically of those groups either.

And very few existing buildings in Georgetown predate 1820. Here is a map showing the known pre-1820 homes in green (according the HistoryQuest database of building permits):

Not too many!

In 1820, Greek Revival displaced federal as the dominant architectural style in the U.S. (so much so that it is also known at the “National” style). In Georgetown, however, the early 19th century was more dominated by the Italianate style. (See GM’s article on both these styles for examples).

Even still, there are not that many buildings from 1820 to 1860 (when the Victorian era began):

The vast, vast majority of Georgetown homes were actually built during the Victorian era. Here are the buildings built between 1860 and 1900:

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the drive to preserve “Old Georgetown” emerged around the time of the preservation of historic Williamsburg (and the rise of the Colonial Revival generally). As a result, a lot of colonial design features were retrofitted to Georgetown homes. For instance, exterior shutters and bald eagle flourishes were added to scores of buildings. Couple this with the fact that most people can’t distinguish a federal, from a Greek revival, from a Second Empire, from a Queen Anne and you end up with so many people thinking Georgetown is full of colonial era homes.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Vast Majority of Georgetown Homes Are Victorian, Not Federal

  1. You’re correct that there are fewer true Federal houses in the Georgetown than most people think. Unfortunately, the HistoryQuest map is fraught with errors. On my block, for example, there are a handful of pre-1820 homes but the map lists them as 1869 citing an 1869 assessment document. This is much like the c. 1900 designation than many real estate listings erroneously use. I’m sure this is the case with most blocks on the map. (See the c. 1800 Henry Foxhall house, 3123 Dumbarton, listed as being built in 1859)

  2. Topher

    That’s fair. It’s an imperfect database. And I intentionally went up to 1899, not 1900, to avoid that error.

  3. Lala Blood

    The Post article says many houses are in “the Federal and Georgian architectural STYLES” not that they were built in that period. In this, they are correct.

  4. Topher

    No, not really. The vast majority of homes in Georgetown were built according the contemporaneous style (mostly Italianate or some form of Victorian) (Or simply no style at all. Modest, working class homes often were built in a simple vernacular that doesn’t really qualify for any particular style.)

    Again, Georgian and federal are very specific styles and do not encapsulate just any old timey-looking brick row house.

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