Federal Style Garden Rooms

Even as Prinny's Marine Pavilion, with its circular and porticoed garden facing salon, was being built, the same Neoclassical influences were leaving their mark on American homes and furniture. The homes of the wealthy built during the years 1789 through 1830 exhibited a simple Neoclassicism that came to be called the Federal style. One of the features of this style was a circular or oval room often opening on the garden. The room might contain potted plants like an orangery but was also furnished as a sort of sun or garden room. We now understand that this garden room was furnished with lightweight painted furniture that could be easily carried out to the portico or lawn.

Painted furniture is often referred to as Baltimore furniture because of the many pieces created in the wealthy trade city, but in fact it was an important furniture type in many other areas. The painted designs on surviving examples of this furniture show that though it varied from shop to shop, city to city, and region to region, there was a definite continuity of theme focused on the areas of realistic flora, fauna, romantic landscapes, and exotic influences from the East. The furniture turned, cane seated, painted, and decorated by specialist craftsmen in a multi-step production marked a step toward mass production. Though the decorations on the chairs are invariably described as stenciled, a recent effort to create reproduction pieces to round out a circa 1820 painted furniture suite at Moses Myers House in Norfolk, Virginia revealed that the decorative painting involved more freehand work than was previously realized. This furniture though inspired by English cane and lacquered Chinoiserie furniture developed into a separate and unique American style.

The oval or circular salons found in Federal houses are Neoclassical in inspiration. Books on classically influenced architecture published in England and France by Scotsman Robert Adam ( 1728 -1792), who published Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam, and a Flemish emigre to France Jean-Francois de Neufforge (1714-1791), who published Receuil Elementaire d' Architecture containing roughly 900 architectural engravings mostly in the Neoclassical style, nearly all of which he both designed and engraved greatly influenced building in England and England in turn influenced American architecture. Asher Benjamin (1773-1845), an American architect, adapted many of these designs to wood construction to fit the scale and finances of American homes. He published his work as The American Builder's Companion(1806). Woodlands, the estate of William Hamilton (1745-1813) located in West Philadelphia reached competition in 1789, and marks the beginning of the Federal style American house. William Hamilton remodeled and enlarged an existing house after his return from a trip to England in 1784-86, where he would have seen the new Neoclassical style for himself. Men like renowned Salem architect Samuel McIntire spread the new Neoclassically influenced Federal style plan. He designed, among many other homes, the Lyman Estate, also known as The Vale, in 1793 for wealthy shipping magnate Theodore Lyman. The Federal style 24 room mansion was completed in 1798 and includes an oval salon with carved woodwork.

Few tables were produced for the circular or oval Neoclassical saloon, so card playing or eating do not seem likely to be the activities undertaken in these rooms. The seating that included window benches and was light and easily carried outside would seem to indicate that viewing the garden outside and enjoying the plants within the room itself were the main attractions of the salon. Did people discuss the new more naturalistic landscape style and exotic plants from around the world? That seems likely.

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