It’s one of the most celebrated addresses in the world—1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, North West, Washington D.C.—a large neo-classical building, bigger now than in its original incarnation, and it was designed by an Irish architect. The White House and James Hoban, are inextricably linked.
Hoban was born in 1755, in Callan, Co. Kilkenny—his actual date of birth was only definitively established last year with the release of millions of Irish Catholic baptismal records online. He worked as a wheelwright and a carpenter until he was in his twenties. When he showed promise as a scholar he was offered a place to study drawing and architecture in the Dublin Society’s Drawing School on Grafton Street. He worked on James Gandon’s Custom House project as an artisan, before emigrating to the USA in 1785. There he quickly established himself as an architect in Philadelphia, and later in South Carolina.
In 1791 the first US President, George Washington, then based in Philadelphia, had been impressed by the Charleston, South Carolina, County Courthouse, designed by Hoban, when he saw it while on a southern tour. He asked to meet the architect. The following year he chose Hoban’s design for the new Presidential mansion from among nine proposals, one of which had been submitted anonymously by Thomas Jefferson, his own Secretary of State.
Hoban’s original competition entry, for which he won $500, and which does not survive, did not entirely meet with the approval of the man after whom the new Federal capital would be named. Washington asked Hoban to remove the third floor he had envisaged, and to widen the building from nine to eleven bays. Hoban, in putting together his final drawings, was influenced by the design of the town house of the Dukes of Leinster on Kildare Street in Dublin. Today we know this humble mansion as Leinster House. So, the annual delivery of a bowl of shamrock is not the only Irish influence on the White House.
Construction began in October 1792, with much of the manual labour being performed by slaves, at least three of whom belonged to the architect himself. Hoban was employed to supervise the construction, and used mostly immigrant Scottish craftsmen to build the sandstone walls. A layer of whitewash finished the job, giving the house its distinctive, though far from unique, colour. It took eight years to build, at a cost of $230,000 (around $3.5m today) and was ready for occupation, though still incomplete, in November 1800. This meant that John Adams, rather than its putative architect, Thomas Jefferson, became the first US President to work in the building. Washington, although he played a major role in its development, never lived there. Adams managed only four months in possession, and thought the mansion was too big. It wasn’t until the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt that the building became officially known as The White House.
The original construction, other than the façade, didn’t last long. The Americans fell out with their colonial masters in 1812, and went back to war. In 1814, the British set fire to the White House during their occupation of Washington D.C. It was rebuilt, again under Hoban’s supervision, and re-occupied, by President James Monroe in 1817, though the reconstruction wasn’t finally completed until two years before the architect’s death. Hoban wasn’t responsible for the West Wing, or the iconic Oval office, which were much later additions.
His reputation being well-established in Washington Hoban saw no reason to leave the city, and he set up a lucrative practice there. He wasn’t at all hindered by his establishment of the first masonic lodge in Washington, with one J. Hoban as master. He went on to supervise the construction of the Capitol Building, and design the Great Hotel. Despite his stature, more than half a dozen of his signature buildings have been demolished, most in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. But despite the British in 1814, and Al Qaeda’s plans for United 93 back in 2001, the White House is still intact.
James Hoban, Kilkenny-born architect, and designer of the one of the world’s most iconic buildings, died, one hundred and eighty-six years ago, on this day.