James Hoban’s White House


James Hoban was born in 1755 to a tenant family who farmed land in Kilkenny County, Ireland.  Nearby, young James was tutored in carpentry at the Cuffes estate, and later attended the Dublin Society’s Drawing School.  Thomas Ivory, the school’s principal, likely brought James into his firm where James would have assisted in the design and construction of civic buildings, Dublin’s City Hall and Customs House, for instance.  Soon, James made a name, and with hope, talent, skill, and ambition, he took the crossing to Philadelphia (1785).

Any gentleman who wishes to build in an elegant style, may hear of a person properly calculated for that purpose who can execute the Joining and Carpenter’s business in the modern taste James Hoban.

And so read Hoban’s Philadelphia advertisement.  How Hoban came to Charleston, South Carolina, we don’t know, but we do know that when there he designed several remarkable buildings including the old South Carolina Statehouse (1786 – 1790, burned during the War to End Slavery, 1865) and the Charleston County Courthouse (1790 – 1792).  While in Charleston, Hoban met President Washington then on tour of the Southern States (1791).  The following year, the President summoned the architect to Philadelphia.  While there, Hoban submitted drawings in competition to design the President’s Mansion, the “White House”.  Washington was the chief juror.  The jury was efficient, brief.  Washington chose Hoban.  Hoban moved to Washington, The District of Columbia, then under construction.


Hobans White House, comp drawing

James Hoban’s White House, North Elevation, 1793. courtesy: White House Historical Association


Hoban’s first design for the President’s Mansion was three stories, nine bays wide, a building similar to his Charleston Courthouse.  Under Washington’s urging the design was reduced to two stories, expanded to eleven bays, and Washington insisted on facing in stone.  (Here I am reminded that Constantine the Great likely invented the Latin-Cross Basilica design.)  We do not know if Hoban’s surviving drawings are from the competition or made later in refinement of early designs.

And that design … you will notice that it is not a royal palace, some kingly presence of power and authority.  No, we’d had enough of power and authority and dictated rules and well, we were rather found of our common Yankee Doodleness.  Hoban modeled our national house on a private house in Dublin, Leinster House, a house he admired when a student.  And like a proper Yankee dandy, he stuck a pediment in the front, something of a fancy feather on a hat, and created the prototype of our American house, the White House.  You will see our American house to be noble yet restrained, politely public yet sheltering a family, and you will observe that the noble, polite family is the ambition of republicanism.


Hobans White House, Neuville

Baroness Hyde de Neuville, four brick executive office buildings and Hoban’s White House, 1820.


For eight years Hoban oversaw construction of the Mansion.  At the same time and later, Hoban, oversaw construction of the U.S. Treasury building, offices for the State Department, War Department, and U.S. Navy, and he designed other executive buildings and churches, a market and a hotel, all lost to demolition.  His other surviving DC building, Octagon House, was the Madison’s residence until the Executive Mansion was rebuilt after burning by the British (1814, [War of 1812]), a rebuilding that Hoban supervised.

Most do not know that architect James Hoban was among America’s leading Catholics, a man who did much to counter anti-Catholic sentiment, relieve Irish-Catholic immigrants, and establish Anglo Catholicism in a country where here-and-there the Catholic faith was illegal.  And Hoban helped to develop Georgetown University, Georgetown Visitation Seminary, and Saint Patrick’s Parish (whose church he designed).  From 1802 until his death in 1831 (at 76), Hoban served on Washington, DC’s city council, actively encouraging city-wide improvements, civil protections, public roads and bridges.  Hoban’s body lies at rest in Mount Olivet Cemetery beneath a handsome, sturdy gravestone on a field of handsome stones that stand nobly, politely on gently rolling hills, little houses for the fine fellows and excellent ladies who built this nation.


Hobans White House, St. Patrick's

Hoban’s Saint Patrick’s Church, 1809. courtesy: White House Historical Association


From design to building, from burning to rebuilding, from additions to recent silly colored lights, the White House has experienced many changes, suffered many fads, enjoyed a few tasteful additions.  Among the tasteful additions, Latrobe’s garden-design and McKim, Mead & White’s interiors and wings.  Among the sufferings, President Truman’s 1949 gutting … marble fragments and whole pieces were dumped along Rock Creek (like many, I regret not picking up a few … uncertain that any can yet be found).

Through gutting, changes, additions and fads, James Hoban’s White House yet retains the intention of his design, the excellent craftsmanship of slaves and free he supervised, the memory of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Grant, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, and the best hopes of our nation.


Hobans White House, Truman's gutting

Hoban’s White House, gutted, circa 1950.


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Other buildings rumored to be by James Hoban that yet exist: Belcamp House at Belcamp College, Dublin, recently burned, in ruin, rebuilding planned; Oak Hill, President James Monroe’s mansion, Aldie, Virginia, possibly by Jefferson or a collaboration between Hoban and Jefferson; Baum-Taft House, the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio; First Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Rossenarra House, near Kilmaganny, Ireland.

All young men and women are ambitious to know themselves good.  I am put in mind that James H. when 25 was awarded the Duke of Leinster Medal for his drawing, “Brackets, Stairs, and Roofs,” and I wonder if award is spur to excellence or if excellence is spur to award, or if some are excellent by grace for some cause not apparent in the mediate but in the long where things truly significant show themselves.


Hobans White House, Trump's restoration

Hoban’s White House, Malania Trump’s interior restorations.


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Hoban's White House

Oak Hill Plantation, Aldie Virginia. Hoban’s White House



Related: Jefferson’s White House

and The Modern White House


Featured image,

Hoban’s White House, Washington, D.C.,

credit, Sean Pavone.


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