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The Federal Style Begins

On March 4, 1789, the U.S. Constitution went into effect as the first Congress met at Federal Hall on Wall Street, ushering in the form of government we utilize in this country to this day. It also was effectively the starting point for a form of architecture that shared the same name as the new institutions in place downtown, and became the first style of building unique to the young nation.

The Federal style of architecture generally covers the years 1790 to 1835, and is typically found on row houses from that period. In elevation and in plan, the buildings were quite modest: generally two to three stories high, three bays wide, with steeply pitched roofs and load-bearing masonry construction.

“After the Revolution,” wrote Ada Louise Huxtable in Classic New York, “in the time of the new republic, Georgian [style architecture] becomes Federal.” Within that Georgian framework, “there are decorative developments, like elliptical fan doorways, a more ‘correct’ classicism inspired by the late eighteenth-century interest in archaeology, a new use of giant porticoes, and a love for octagonal, oval and circular rooms. … the style is always marked by a surprising justness of proportion and finesse of detail.”

In 1997, Village Preservation received a grant from the Preserve New York Program to document and advocate for the preservation of Federal-era houses in Lower Manhattan. At the time, it was believed that about 350 Federal structures survived, but about half lacked any landmark protection or were not recognized by the State and National Registers of Historic Places. In the two decades that followed, our organization successfully advocated for 136 of these houses to be landmarked and/or listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. This includes 13 individual NYC landmarks; nine NYC historic districts or historic-district extensions containing federal houses; and the South Village State and National Register Historic District, which contains 96 federal-era houses among its approximately 750 buildings. (The results of this research and advocacy can be found in our 2017 report available for download here.)

Some Federal-style structures in Greenwich Village and the East Village bear a connection to the Constitution beyond showcasing a style developed in its wake. The Hamilton-Holly House, for example, built in 1831 at 4 St. Mark’s Place, is a significant example of a late Federal-style house, constructed with Flemish bond brickwork. Today, the building still retains its original high stoop, long parlor-floor windows, white Gibbs surround with triple keystone and vermiculated blocks around the entrance, and double segmental dormers. The house is a rare surviving intact example of a late, grand Federal-style row house.

Hamilton-Holly House, 4 St. Mark’s Place, ca. 2010

But in 1833 the house gained a further connection with the U.S. Constitution when it was purchased by Alexander Hamilton Jr., son of the Founding Father and first U.S. Treasury secretary. Several members of the Hamilton and Van Wyck families called the site home. In the 20th century, it became a hub for music and theater, including the New Bowery Theater and the Bridge Theater. More recently, 4 St, Mark’s Place had been the site of counterculture fashion inspiration Trash and Vaudeville. The building was named an individual landmark in 2004.

The first three of the 13 Federal-era rowhouses Village Preservation successfully proposed and campaigned to get landmarked (jointly with the New York Landmarks Conservancy) were 127, 129, and 131 MacDougal Street, three Federal-style homes built in 1829 by downtown hat merchant Alonzo Alwyn Alvord as the neighborhood around Washington Square changed from a potter’s field to an upscale residential neighborhood.

127, 129, and 131 MacDougal Street

From 1833 to 1839, 127 MacDougal was owned by Anthony Lewis DeRose and his wife Susan. He was a portrait, historical, and miniature painter who exhibited at the American Academy and National Academy. His portrait of Davy Crockett is owned by The New-York Historical Society. In the late 19th century, the area around the park was becoming less fashionable, and all three structures were transformed into lodging for the working class. In the next century, the ground floors of these MacDougal Street rowhouses were converted into commercial use (including this blog-post author’s favorite place for lo mein in the 1980s). Since 1977, Nos. 127 and 129 have been the home of the popular restaurant La Lanterna di Vittorio. The buildings were also named individual landmarks in 2004.

Read our report “Twenty Years of Preserving Federal-Era Rowhouses 1997–2017” and learn more about this significant style of American architecture on our website.

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