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Behind The Federal Facade

May 2024
3min read

An architecture for a new nation found its inspiration in ancient Rome

When he was seventy-six years old, the Boston Federalist politician Harrison Gray Otis wrote to a friend about death and the afterlife: “Dont you wish you knew what sort of accommodations await us there. We have no right to expect them to be comparatively as good as we have had here. It would be more than our share. …” Certainly, if Otis had had the choice of residing in heaven or in the house Charles Bulfinch had designed for him, there is little doubt he’d have chosen the house. He was entirely a man of the world—gregarious, extravagant, a lover of fine wines, good conversation, and the rough-and-tumble of American politics. Possibly the only concept that Otis had inherited from earlier Bostonians was the notion of a Puritan elect, but for Otis, God’s appointed would rule not in heaven but in the statehouse, the courthouse, and the countinghouse.

It was almost inevitable that Otis would join with the Boston architect Charles Bulfinch to give this materialist philosophy physical form. The politician and the architect shared an ideology that was cultural as well as political, aesthetic as well as practical. Otis, Bulfinch, and the merchants and shipowners who dominated the Federalist party in Boston embraced the political philosophy of Alexander Hamilton and the neoclassical style of Robert Adam. In both cases they turned toward English models and rejected the American, agrarian-based idealism of Thomas Jefferson and his “mobocracy.” Perhaps not since the Florence of Machiavelli and the Medici have politics, art, and commerce been in such complete accord.

Otis’s three Boston houses designed by Bulfinch are widely regarded as the ultimate expression of the Federal style in American architecture. They weren’t just residences but social and political centers. Wherever Otis lived, his house formed the apex of a triangle whose other points were the Boston State House and Faneuil Hall market.


In many ways the first Otis house, on Cambridge Street, resembled the Georgian houses built in colonial America (see American Heritage, February). Its symmetrical five-bay facade (window, window, doorway, window, window) and its classical details were commonly seen on high-style houses of fifty years earlier. But the Otis house has a greater complexity: it is a story taller than the typical Georgian house, and its three levels are clearly distinguished by white stone stringcourses and by varying window heights. As originally designed by Bulfinch, the second floor would have been even further set off from the ground and attic floors by iron balconies and stone plaques decorated with swags, but those refinements were abandoned. An elliptical fanlight in the entrance marks another break with Georgian style, which rarely used geometric shapes other than rectangles and circles on the exterior.

In his youthful travels abroad Bulfinch had been impressed by the work of the sixteenth-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. In England he had admired Robert Adam’s adaptions of the Palladian style. The Palladian window, an increasingly popular architectural motif in post-Revolutionary America, with its central arched window and two adjacent sidelights, emphasized a theme of tripartite spatial divisions and established a subtle rhythm of dominant and subordinate elements of which Bulfinch was the American master.


Bulfinch’s use of interior space also differed from that of Georgian builders. Although the first Otis house has a roughly four-square Georgian plan of two rooms on either side of a central hallway, the multipurpose rooms of an earlier age now have more specific uses —in an expansion on a development from the Georgian period. Most notably, the second-floor drawing room, to which women withdrew while men continued their entertainments in the dining room below, served as a showplace in which to display the latest in English fashions imported by Boston merchants. Hepplewhite and Sheraton furniture, Sheffield silver, and Wedgwood ceramics all exhibited a lightness, an attenuation, an elegance, and, some said, a femininity unmatched before or since.

Newly popular and elaborate inlays and veneers, as well as new alloys, such as britannia, and original combinations of materials, like silverplate and ormolu, came from the small American and English factories that had started to replace the workshops of individual craftsmen. This innovation often hid behind a multitude of classical motifs: cornucopias, sheaves of wheat, foliage swags, shields, helmets, pedestals, eagles, and, nearly everywhere the eye rested, urns.

During the years of the Otis-Bulfinch alliance, Boston was transformed from a town ruined by the Revolution and a series of disastrous fires into what was often called by contemporaries the most beautiful city in America. This was largely accomplished through Bulfinch’s land-filling projects and the massive construction of blocks of residences and public and commercial buildings.


Otis is probably best remembered for his role in the Hartford Convention. Meeting in the Bulfinch-designed Connecticut Statehouse in the winter of 1814–15, New England Federalists were led by Otis in drawing up a list of grievances against the government’s involvement in the War of 1812. When the surprising news of the peace treaty at Ghent was accompanied by word of Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans, Otis and his party were ridiculed. As the fortunes of the Federalist party declined, so did the Federal style in architecture. And the shift to simpler Greek-influenced architectural styles seemed to portend a new model for America’s political and social order, as it moved into the era of Jacksonian democracy.

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