The Kilkenny Man Who Built The White House….Twice

On a bright spring morning in early January 2017 I went for a drive with my father from home our in Bennettsbridge to the nearby town of Callan in County Kilkenny. We were going to check-in on his crops of winter barley located a few miles outside the town of ‘The Big Chapel’. As we left Callan and drove towards the townland of Ballyline my father pointed to the left and said “That’s where the monument is to yer man who built the White House, Hoban”. It stirred in me a vague memory. I had heard something of this when I was younger but had always assumed that the town’s link to the man who built the White House was as tenuous and distant as Obama’s link to Moneygall or Martin Sheen’s link to Borrisokane. We continued on our way without further comment surveying the young green barley shoots with satisfaction before returning home for a hearty lunch of brown bread, rashers, and tea.

With Donald Trump taking up residency in the White House this week, I thought again of the ‘Irish’ man who built the White house and decided to delve a little deeper into the subject. Upon typing “who built the White house?” into a search engine the words ‘James Hoban’ and ‘Irish-born Architect’ appeared on my screen. Far from being the ‘plastic paddy’ I suspected, the man who designed the White House was in fact Irish born and bred.

James Hoban was born in 1755 to relatively humble beginnings. His father and mother, Edward and Martha, were tenant farmers on the estate of Otway Cuffe, otherwise known as the First Earl of Desart near Callan County Kilkenny. He was educated on the estate and showed early talent for carpentry and drawing. With patronage from Lord Desart, James moved to Dublin to pursue a career in architecture. Over the following years Hoban excelled at his studies in the Royal Dublin Society winning the prestigious Duke of Leinster’s medal for his drawings and serving an apprenticeship in the practice of Thomas Ivory a former principal of the Society.

During his time in Dublin young Hoban would have paid particular attention to the work of renowned architects such as Edward Lovett Pearce (The Irish Houses of Parliament/Bank of Ireland College Green), Richard Cassels (Leinster House), and James Gandon (The Custom House). Georgian Dublin was developing rapidly and the influence of it’s architectural style at the time would be clearly evident in Hoban’s future designs.

In the early 1880’s, following the end of the American Revolution, Hoban decided to seek his fortune in the United States settling first in the young nation’s capital of Philadelphia before moving south to the burgeoning city of Charleston in South Carolina. He set up a business and workshop with another Irish man, Pierce Purcell, and within a few years Hoban & Purcell had built several prominent private and public buildings in the city, including the Charleston County Courthouse.

Charleston County Courthouse
Charleston County Courthouse – Courtesy: Wiki Commons

In 1791, first president of the United States George Washington embarked on  a tour of the southern states of the fledgling nation which included a week long visit to Charleston. During his stay Washington saw the courthouse that Hoban was in the process of building and may well have met the Irish man. Either way Hoban must have made a good impression on the nation’s founding father for a year later he was summoned to Philadelphia to meet him. The two no doubt discussed the construction of the new federal capital which Washington felt was necessary in order to properly represent the country’s newly acquired independence and it’s aspirations for the future. French civil engineer Pierre L’Enfant was commissioned to design the layout of the new city to be built on the Potomac river.

Along with L’Enfant’s impressive plans for the new city, it was decided that the commissioning for the two most important buildings of the new capital, the Presidential House (later to be known as the ‘White House’) and the Capitol building would be awarded by separate competitions both to be held in 1792.

Nine proposals were received for the competition to design the White House including Hoban’s and interestingly also including an anonymous proposal by future US president Thomas Jefferson. On reviewing the submitted proposals George Washington chose Hoban’s design. The fact that the two men had met previously must surely have been an advantage to the young Irish man.

The main inspiration for Hoban’s design is said to be Dublin’s Leinster House formerly the residence of the Duke of Leinster and today the seat of the Oireachtas, Ireland’s parliament. Designed by the German Richard Cassels, it is built in the Palladian style – a philosophy of architecture based on the writings and buildings of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio who looked to recreate the style and proportions of the buildings of ancient Rome. The two buildings certainly share many architectural traits. 

Hoban’s Original Floor Plan – Courtesy: Thomas Jefferson Coolidge Collection

The cornerstone for the new Presidential House, bearing Hoban’s name on a brass plate, was laid on the 13th of October 1792. The building, made of pale sandstone, took 8 years to complete and was ready for occupancy in November 1800. The building acquired it’s name ‘The White House’ due to the lime-based whitewash that Hoban used on the outer walls during construction and after to protect the porous sandstone from damage caused by freezing.

The first president to take up residency in the Presidential House was John Adams, the second president of the United States. In 1812 a war broke out between the US and Britain one of the casualties of which was the White House. It was burned down by British militia leaving only the exterior walls standing. Hoban was asked by Congress to rebuild the structure a feat which he achieved in little over 3 years. Thus in reality James Hoban not only built the White House once but twice!

After finishing the construction of the White House James Hoban continued living and working in the federal district. He supervised the construction of the other great landmark building, the State Capitol, as well as designing the State Department Building and the Blodget Hotel (both of which are no longer standing) along with numerous other government projects, including roads and bridges. He was very prominent in the civic life of the city becoming a leading figure in the development of institutions such as the Catholic church, the freemasons, and the Washington Artillery – a forerunner of the first police force – founded by Hoban to maintain law and order in the young capital.

Hoban married Susana Sewell, a young woman from a wealthy Maryland family and the couple had 10 children. His son James Hoban Jr. became a well known Washington lawyer and served as District Attorney for the District of Columbia. Sadly his wife Susana passed away due to tuberculosis in 1822 and Hoban himself died in 1831 at the age of 73. He is buried alongside his wife in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

“I wake up every morning in a house (the White House) that was built by slaves.”

Michelle Obama, July 25th, 2016 in a speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia

 As Donald Trump takes residence in the White House this week – a man who has expressed the intention to expel 11 million undocumented illegal immigrants from the US – it is with no little irony that his new home was built by predominantly undocumented immigrants and slaves. While this brave new world offered educated and free people like James Hoban opportunity and fortune a very different experience was afforded to the African-American slaves ‘owned’ by Hoban who worked on the construction of the White House alongside free African-American labourers and paid craftsman. They remain nameless on the pages of the building’s history, and would continue to suffer the horor and injustice of slavery until the thirteenth amendment, abolishing slaver, was passed in 1865.


The White House, North Lawn - Wiki Commons
The White House, North Lawn. – Wiki Commons

I returned again to the memorial for Hoban. It came about when Thom Penney president of the American Institute of Architects, came to Ireland in 2004 and spotted the plaque to Hoban and decided that it wasn’t really fitting memorial to the man who designed the White House.

Original Plaque to Hoban, Desart, Co. Kilkenny
Original Plaque to Hoban, Desart, Co. Kilkenny

The monument was built in 2008 to mark the 250th anniversary of Hoban’s birth by architecture students from the Catholic University of Washington DC and local craftsmen. The monument is designed as a metaphor for Hoban’s life starting as a simple rustic stone, to hewn limestone blocks, and ending in white carrera marble that is symbolic of the White House. At the end of the walkway is a white cube with a glass roof carrying a drawing of the main façade of the White House, which reflects onto the white wall on sunny days.

The James Hoban Memorial, Desart, Co. KIlkenny.
The James Hoban Memorial, Desart, Co. KIlkenny

James Hoban’s story and that of the building of the White House give us a prism through which one can get a glimpse of the complicated and often dark past of the United States. Hoban’s story could easily be presented as a classic example of the American dream. A young immigrant from humble beginnings who traveled to the U.S to seek his fortune, who prospered in a land of opportunity through his own ingenuity and hard work. It is his building that stands at 1600 Pennsylvania today. A symbol of a nation built by immigrants.


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