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The Federal Era (1783-1840)

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The Federal Era
Neil Larson, Larson Fisher Associates

The freedom and exuberance of American nationalism is so palpable in Federal Period architecture one can easily imagine the dramatic shifts occurring within the culture following the Revolutionary War. First of all, the architecture reflects the understandable rejection of English models and the embrace of those belonging to the French allies. Federal Period architecture is also more broadly based in a new and radical interest in Neoclassicism by the French. Neoclassicism was a style that eschewed the old aristocratic classicism of the Italian Renaissance for the Republican classicism of ancient Rome. While this coincided nicely with the revolutionary republican spirit of the times, it also was the result of archaeologists discovering the vibrant architecture and art of Pompeii and Herculaneum through excavations there. Thus is was the highly stylized architecture of the Roman Republic filtered through the revolutionary mentality of modern French taste that influenced American Federal architecture. Once conveyed here by pattern books, builders further manipulated it to the tastes and politics of their clients. The controversial rhetoric of the French style was translated and applied in the American context with remarkable power. These bold statements of national solidarity, replete with eagles and other patriotic iconography, was full of nuances that belied the complexity and contradiction of cultural and political factions vying for power.


Country Houses 
The success of the American Revolution provided the new nation with a democratic form of government, but it did not result in a classless society. Men with land and wealth still controlled the economy and the government. With independence a whole new generation of elite political and financial leaders came of age and with the elegant and stylish country houses they built, they succeeded in remaking not just the high-style architecture of the Hudson Valley but of the nation as a whole. These houses are still evident throughout the region, although it is along the Hudson River that they are most distinctive. In this period, new mansions and their landscapes dominated the riverside from Manhattan to Albany. They were most conspicuous on the east side of the river where the dominant families were already entrenched. Names, such as Van Cortlandt, Verplanck, Van Wyck and Van Rensselaer were still prominent, but it was the Livingston family that changed the face of elite architecture in the Hudson Valley.

View of Clermont, Columbia County. Aquatint by Archibald Robertson, 1796. Albany Institute of History and Art. From Ruth Piwonka, A Portrait of Livingston Manor, 1686-1850. (1986), p 58.

The Livingston family was spread far and wide across the region, yet their fertile ground was in northern Dutchess and southern Columbia counties where the union of Robert R. Livingston of Clermont and Margaret Beekman of Rhinebeck merged lands on which their numerous offspring planted great estates. Their eldest son, Robert R. Livingston, Member of the Continental Congress, U.S. Minister Plenipotentiary to France and Chancellor of the State of New York, was titular leader of the clan and their lifestyle. A lesser intellect than Thomas Jefferson, the Chancellor, nonetheless introduced French architecture and taste to the region, dabbled in progressive agriculture (he brought the first Merino sheep to America), and was the principal shareholder of Robert Fulton's steamboat. The radical French style he promoted was created by some of the émigrés who flooded into New York following the French Revolution. The number and design of these country houses were unrivaled by comparable buildings in any other part of the United States, and they set the stage for the Hudson Valley's renowned association with this elite class of architecture. (The extent of this development will be followed in subsequent sections of this history.)

Photograph of Aryl House, aka Idele, 1792-1793. Home of Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, Clermont, Columbia County. Photographer unknown. Collections of New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.

What distinguished these new houses from those built in the Colonial Era was the reduction of exterior decoration and the complication of the form and plan. In both cases, Classical order and symmetry were preserved, but in the Federal-era houses, they were manipulated and highly stylized reflecting the innovation of the age. By comparison, the old boxy Colonial mansions with their unvarying facades and ponderous cornices represented the stale and rigid society the rebels were rejecting. One could actually see the envelope of the old-style box stretching and bulging in the same way established governments and social orders were being forced to adapt. The geometry of the new houses was complex and often playful. Elevations were heightened along with their windows, rounded bays bowed out, porch posts, columns, and chimneys were all attenuated. And ornament broke the bounds of architecture and became thoroughly fanciful.

Photograph of The Hill, 1796-1799. Home of Walter Henry Livingston, Livingston, Columbia County. Robert Fulton Ludlow, photographer. Columbia County Historical Society Collection.

Interiors were similarly modified. The standard plan with two squarish rooms flanking a passageway with a stair was dismembered. The entrance remained in the center of the façade where balance was still a factor, but the hall often no longer bisected the plan, and stairs were tucked in side recesses. It norm for Hudson River houses was to have the hall enter a large double parlor in the back of the house, which was the river side. These rooms opened onto a broad piazza to enhance the appreciation of the river and mountain vistas that were an important part of the setting. The plan could include elliptical or polygonal rooms that further defied established symmetry and created fascinating spaces. Decoration was flat and ornamental. Gone were the bulky chimneybreasts and heavy cornices of the previous age. They were replaced with simpler, more organic forms and archeological objects. At their highest expression, this decoration was quite colorful, another departure from the status quo. The Pompeian palate was an ideal, and decoration could get rather gaudy. Patterned wallpapers, carpeting, and upholstery all contributed to a visual cacophony of revolution.

Plan of The Hill, 1796-1799. From Roger G. Kennedy, Orders from France: The Americans and the French in a Revolutionary World, 1780-1820 (1989) p 67.


Republican fervor had its impact on farmhouses as well. Once the regional economy recovered from the war and its aftermath, prosperous farmers responded with architectural innovations and emphatic nationalistic expression. Here too, a new generation that grew up during the Revolutionary era took progressive steps beyond the cultural traditions followed by their forebears. With the English colonial government ejected from the scene, the quarrelsome architectural relationship between Dutch and British segments of the region began to ease. Cultural barriers were quickly lowered as each saw themselves bonded to the region within an independent state. This was first expressed by common decoration being applied to traditional house forms. Dutch houses retained their characteristic one-story, rectangular appearance, and the British continued to build two-story, square-plan houses; however, each shared a new nationalistic style vocabulary, now called the Federal Style.

Detail of façade of Van Wyck House, East Hyde Park, Dutchess County. Photograph by Neil Larson.


View of farmhouse, Crawford, Orange County. Photograph by Neil Larson.



Rural Architecture 
Country folk developed their own interpretation of Neoclassicism. Whereas in the Colonial Era, cultural tension between the Dutch and English fueled architectural expression (at least on the Dutch side), in the Federal era, it was the farmers' identity, be they Dutch or British, that was at stake. By 1820, an extraordinary aesthetic had developed in the rural areas of the region as a result of the established farmers' struggle to retain autonomy and control in the face of the radical shifts in demographics and state politics. Hudson Valley farmers had been the mainstay of the Colonial economy and society, and they enjoyed great prosperity and status. These men were solid Republicans and had weathered many years of war. They believed themselves to be the leaders of the new state, and one of their kin - George Clinton - was elected New York State's first governor. However, little land for farms remained in the Hudson Valley, while thousands of new settlers from Europe and New England flowed into the central and western parts of the state, not to mention New York City, upsetting the traditional balance of power. This shift had a tremendous impact on the region economically and politically, and the rural society battled to maintain their power. By the end of the Federal Period (1840), the once vibrant region was aging and in decline. But for two decades, art and architecture in the region reflected the turmoil with a radical confrontational style.

Portrait of an unidentified woman (probably Mrs. Andrew Thompson, Crawford, Orange County), painted by Ammi Phillips, c1828. From Holdridge & Holdridge, Ammi Phillips, Portrait Painter, 1788-1865. (1969)

Freedom Plains Presbyterian Church, c1820, Dutchess County. Photograph by Neil Larson.

The refinement and decorative nature of Neoclassical design was a perfect (and fundamentally related) model for the enthusiastic rural architecture that developed in the Hudson Valley. Traditional Dutch and British farmhouse forms were fastidiously preserved and ornamented with emblems of prestige and prosperity. Yet, there was a distorted, exaggerated quality to the expression that immediately distanced it from its counterparts in other regions in the state and from the city. Like the "primitive" portraits that hung in their halls, their simple furnishings, their homespun products, and their pious demeanor, their houses revived the old Puritan idea of "plainness," where the vanity and trappings of the material world were rejected. For affluent farm families to adopt this lifestyle was certainly paradoxical. Unlike the Puritans, or later the Quakers and Mennonites, this was a political posture rather than a religious act of separation. The rural society created a noble persona for the citizen-farmer, steeped in republican dogma stretching from Pliny to Thomas Jefferson, and acted in defiance of the modern evils of the city and universal suffrage. This confrontational posture permeated their lives and colored all their expression. Their architecture was as full of reactionary rhetoric as their pamphlets and newspapers.

View of Charles Hulse House, c1820, Burnside, Orange County. From Mildred Parker Seese, Old Orange Houses, vol. 1, (1941 p 6.)

Hudson Valley farmhouses, particularly those of the rising generation of the rural leadership, took Neoclassical form and decoration and distorted it even further to proclaim their opposition. Verticality was even more exaggerated and Classical features were deconstructed. Cornices and corners were embellished with thin moldings and restrained detail. Windows were capped with projecting headers that looked like mantelpieces. The entrance was the focal point, and it was generally sheltered by a narrow, front-gable porch reminiscent of Dutch stoops with its side benches. Here Neoclassical ornament was reinterpreted by rural carpenters to create showpieces of this unique design. Interiors were treated in much the same way. Fireplaces, doorways, and windows were embellished with woodwork that was at once elaborate and reduced, tasteful and crude, traditional and defiant. This Mannerist style was designed to do more than express separation, it was intended to shock and offend. And it achieved its desired effect. Their style was considered disgraceful by artists and critics in the city, and much later, collectors and historians described it as "primitive" and "folk art." Yet it is now evident that these people were neither primitive nor unworldly, and their art and architecture is should be interpreted in broader social and aesthetic frameworks. This farmhouse architecture, with its quirky, otherworldly characteristics is as significant to the region's history as the more familiar elegant country houses.

View of end elevation of Brinckerhoff House, c1825, Chelsea, Dutchess County. Photograph by Neil Larson.


View of porch, unidentified house, Union Vale, Dutchess County. Photograph by Neil Larson.


Detail of porch, unidentified house, Union Vale, Dutchess County. Photograph by Neil Larson.

Interior view of Blauvelt-Amos House, Blauvelt, Rockland County. Photograph by Neil Larson.


Farmsteads did not change much from the Colonial Period when barns were the principal and often the only building. The Dutch and British continued to construct barns reflecting their ethnic heritage, and they were actually called Dutch and English barns in the period. Both had developed as structures in which to dry and process wheat, which was the major market crop in the region. During the Federal Period, wheat production declined due to soil exhaustion, blights and growing price competition from farms west of the Catskills. (The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 effectively ended the region's wheat economy as it delivered grain from the western part of the state to New York City merchants in greater quantities and at lower prices than that produced in the Hudson Valley.) The barns remained intact in form, but increased in size and were rearranged for housing milk cows and storing hay in their rafters. Wheat was replaced with butter as a commodity, and Hudson Valley agriculture shifted to feed the growing metropolis at the river's mouth.

View of Jansen Dutch barn, Napanoch, Ulster County. Photograph by Neil Larson.


View of unidentified English barn. Photograph by Neil Larson.


The cities of New York and Albany expanded and developed rapidly in this period and the river landings grew as well. River transportation improved dramatically with the introduction of the steamboat in 1809. Passengers and freight moved more quickly between the rural sources of foodstuffs and manufactured goods and consumers in the city. New York City was emerging as the most important port on the Atlantic seaboard. Albany, the capital city, was losing much of its old Dutch and frontier status. Lumber and iron, both extracted from the great north woods of the Adirondacks, generated prosperity. Elegant new townhouses in the Neoclassical taste were built in large numbers in both places. New York City had to be rebuilt from the ravages of the war, and it was completed with great style that was widely recognized. Architects became a legitimate profession in this era and public and residential buildings achieved a new sophistication. The transformation was so complete that by 1820 Washington Irving was lamenting that the Dutch architecture in New York City was gone.

View of Broadway and City Hall, watercolor by Baron Axel Leonhard Klinckowstrom. Museum of the City of New York Collection. From Roger G. Kennedy, Orders from France: The Americans and the French in a Revolutionary World, 1780-1820 (1989) p 6.

Historic print view of City Hotel, New York. New-York Historical Society Collection. From Roger G. Kennedy, Orders from France: The Americans and the French in a Revolutionary World, 1780-1820 (1989) p 60.

Historic watercolor view of Albany street, painted by James Eights, c1840. Albany Institute of History and Art Collection.


Village architecture
The river landings remained small but bustling entrepôts of commercial activity. Farmers delivered produce to the landings, often lining up for miles in their wagons on market day, and delivered them to agents who sold them in the city. These agents were generally merchants who exchanged the farm products for domestic supplies and fancy goods without any real money changing hands. As the economy expanded, the commercial offerings of the landing diversified and many of the larger towns, such as Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, Hudson and Peekskill prospered. Domestic, commercial, public and religious architecture multiplied. Town life changed as all the small landings along the river and the farm communities they serviced became avid consumers of imported trade goods and quite cosmopolitan in their tastes.

View of Tivoli Landing. Photograph by Neil Larson.

Kingston from Golden Hill, artist unknown, 1853. From Kingston Tercentenary Souvenir Booklet (1952).

Street view in Hyde Park, Dutchess County. Photograph by Neil Larson.


Factories and worker housing
Prior to the Revolution, industrial activity was limited to flour and saw mills as the English autorities forbade its development. Even then, mill licenses were only granted to well-connected patentees. With that suspension lifted, mill sites were developed throughout the region by ambitious entrepreneurs. Grist and saw mills were still the predominant type, since every community could support one, but many began branching out into woolen mills, that would card wool and full cloth made in the home, and manufacturing ventures. Wood and tin shops, chair and broom factories, plaster and powder mills, potteries, glassworks, and other specialty industries proliferated. In short time, once technology permitted the machine weaving of first wool and later cotton cloth, large spinning, weaving, dying and printing factories appeared on the region's larger creeks. Towns like Yonkers, Newburgh, Wappingers Falls, Saugerties, Columbiaville and Cohoes became early factory centers. This led to the growth of these towns as the sons and daughters of local farms took jobs in the mills.

Photograph of cotton mills at Columbiaville, Columbia County. Columbia County Historical Society Collection.

View of Worker house, Wappingers Falls, Dutchess County. Photograph by Neil Larson.

Greek Revival Architecture
Sometime in the 1820's, the world's fascination with Rome and Neoclassicism was supplanted by an enthusiasm for Greek archeology and the rediscovery of its architecture. By this time, after the atrocities of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, France no longer enjoyed a central place in the hearts of Americans. The idealism generated with the winning of American independence was also diminishing as the image of Jefferson's republic of citizen farmers had evolved into a nation oriented to commerce and capitalism. The shift in attention from Rome to Greece also reflected a shift in orientation from France back to Britain. With the exuberant nationalistic iconography growing a bit stale, it was replaced by a more stolid, apolitical reference to ancient Greek architecture. With a formal system and a conventionalized ornamental vocabulary already in place, it was a favorite of architects for public buildings. It was also applied to domestic architecture but with limited success. One or two Greek Revival style "temples" were built in just about every town in the Hudson Valley, but they were by far in a highly visible minority when compared with other architectural periods and styles (many more appeared in western New York, where communities were reaching maturity in this period). The style was more evident in the stylistic woodwork that was incorporated in more common houses, such as wide fascias on cornices and corner boards and porch posts designed with capitals. This taste lasted no more than two decades when it was condemned as unnatural in the environment and un-American by Romantic architects and designers who took the region by storm at mid-century.

View of church, Farmers Museum, Cooperstown, NY. Photograph by Neil Larson.

View of store, Napanoch, Ulster County. Photograph by Neil Larson.

View of house, Spencertown, Columbia County. Photograph by Neil Larson.

View of farmhouse, Rhinebeck, Dutchess County. Photograph by Neil Larson.

Suggested Reading;

Eberlein, Harold Donaldson and Cortlandt Van Dyck Hubbard. Historic Houses of the Hudson Valley. NY: The Architectural Book Publishing Co., 1942.
Kennedy, Roger G. Orders From France: The American and the French in a Revolutionary World, 1780-1820. NY: Knopf, 1989.
Piwonka, Ruth, A Portrait of Livingston Manor, 1686-1850. Clermont NY: Friends of Clermont State Historic Site, 1986.
Reynolds, Helen Wilkinson. Dutchess County Doorways. c1930. 
Sanchis, Frank E. American Architecture, Westchester County, New York: Colonial to Contemporary. Croton-on-Hudson, NY: North River Press, 1977.
Seese, Mildred Parker. Old Orange Houses. Middletown, NY: Whitlock Press, 1941. 
______. Old Orange Houses, Vol. II. By the author, 1942.