Mason County Memories: The Federal Style


By Chris Rizer - Special to OVP



Of all the styles in American architectural history, the Federal style is by far my favorite. Classy, elegant, and idealistic, it represents everything that the Founding Fathers intended for their new nation.

The Federal Style is an evolution of the earlier Georgian style, brought over from Great Britain around 1710. Both are classical styles, meaning they took many of their features from Greek and Roman antiquity. But while Georgian architecture discovered those details second-hand through the lens of the Italian Renaissance, Federal architects found inspiration at the source, in the ruins of Pompeii and Athens.

Thus while Georgian is heavy and blocky, Federal is light and airy. While Georgian details are stressed and proportional in relation to the parts (e.g. the height of the window in relation to the width), Federal details are minimal and proportional in relation to the whole. This is why Georgian, even to the most unfamiliar observer, seems slightly off or unbalanced, whereas Federal is generally pleasing to the eye.

This evolution from Georgian to Federal began in the 1770s, so by the time the American Revolution wrapped up in 1783, Federal style was the newest and most “modern” in North America. Combine this with the style’s embodiment of Ancient Greece and Rome, particularly the democratic and republican values that both civilizations represent, and it was clear that this would be the architectural force behind the new United States. In fact, it was one of the major influences behind Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan for the new Federal City that would eventually become Washington, D.C.

From the meeting houses of New England to the row houses of the mid-Atlantic port cities to the grand mansions of the Southern elite, this new symbol of democracy spread across the young nation like wildfire. From the 1780s to the 1830s, when it was replaced by the Greek Revival style, the Federal style dominated American architecture.

Here in Mason County, those years coincide with the beginning of major settlement and growth. Point Pleasant was settled in 1784, officially laid out and chartered in 1794, and made the seat of the newly formed Mason County in 1804. It’s really no wonder then that many of our oldest buildings are in the Federal style, or have Federal detailing inside. The two that survive in the best condition are of course the Mansion House (1796) and Roseberry Plantation (ca. 1820, pictured).

Because it was built while Point Pleasant was still being carved out of the wilderness, it’s a bit difficult to see in the Mansion House, but it is without a doubt built in the Federal style. The clear symmetry in the design, though hidden by over 200 years of changes, is still apparent in the original doors, windows, and central brick chimney. And though the log construction doesn’t allow for much in the way of exterior details aside from the tripartite windows in the end gables, the interior woodwork would be right at home in any Federal style building.

Roseberry, on the other hand, is so clearly Federal as to make any architectural historian drool. The perfect symmetry, double end chimneys, semi-elliptical sunburst windows in the gables, and intricate semi-elliptical fanlight over the main entrance combine to give it away without even needing to look inside. The massive 12-over-12 windows and detailed Flemish bond brickwork are extra details would tell me (assuming I wasn’t already familiar with the home) that whoever built it had quite a bit of money.

In fact, Thomas Lewis Jr. was probably the wealthiest person in Mason County in 1820, given that he was the grandson of General Andrew Lewis, son of Point Pleasant’s founder Thomas Lewis, Sr., and the owner of a few thousand acres of prime farmland and unfortunately nearly a dozen slaves. A testament to his wealth is the fact that the glass for Roseberry would have had to come downriver from Pittsburgh, at a time when steamboats on the Ohio were only nine years old, or overland from the Shenandoah Valley.

Yet within a decade, the growing plantations along the Kanawha River were challenging the Lewis family’s wealth, and consequently, their power. Even their plantations, in the new Greek Revival style, made the nearly brand-new Roseberry look old-fashioned.

Information from Virginia McAlester’s “Field Guide” and my own studies in architectural history.

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By Chris Rizer

Special to OVP

Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at masonchps@gmail.com.

Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at masonchps@gmail.com.