James Hoban was born in a thatched cottage on the estate of the Earl of Desart at Cuffesgrange near Callan in 1758. He was the son of Edward Hoban and Martha Bayne, and they had four children, James, Joseph, Philip and Ann. Edward worked as a tenant farmer on the Desart Court lands and his children were able to take advantage of the tutoring services offered on the estate. In the early years, James showed an interest and talent for drawing and design in his work as a wheelwright and carpenter on the estate. While Irish Roman Catholics of the time were disadvantaged by the penal laws, James Hoban was fortunate to have been in the employ of Lord Otway Cuffe, who arranged for James to attend the Dublin Society’s Drawing School. The Cuffes were a prominent local family and it may be taken that James also enjoyed his lordship’s patronage. It soon became clear that the young Kilkennyman was not wasting his time or his lordship’s money, when he won the prestigious Duke of Leinster medal from the Dublin Society in 1780 for drawings, titled, ‘Brackets, Stairs and Roofs’. In 1779 Hoban was offered a position as an apprentice to the Cork-born architect, Thomas Ivory, the headmaster of the Dublin Society School. Following the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783, Hoban decided to strike out on his own and emigrated to the U.S.A. in 1885, where he began to establish himself as an architect in Philadelphia.
It was not until the U.S. Constitution was adopted in the late 1780s that the U.S. presidency was created. One reason people were willing to accept a president was because they knew George Washington would fill the role. Now a decision had to be made on where President Washington and all future presidents would reside.
Hoban was in South Carolina in April 1787, where he designed many buildings, including the Charlestown County Courthouse in 1790, which was built on the ruins of the former South Carolina Statehouse. President Washington created an open contest to decide who was going to design the White House. Since the president had met Hoban and liked his work, he decided to invite him to take part. Each of the sixteen contestants produced their vision of the perfect residence for an American president. Hoban was inspired by a number of buildings in his native country and it is said that his winning design appeared to be influenced by Leinster House, the stone residence in Dublin. Americans were fearful of a royal palace style residence for its president, but Hoban’s simple and conservative design won the support of government officials. The construction began in 1793 and Hoban oversaw the work to the finish in 1800. The prize for the winner was $500 or a gold medal and Hoban accepted the medal.
When America and Britain took up arms again during the War of 1812, often referred to as the second War of Independence, the British attacked and burned down the Whitehouse in 1814, leaving only charred brown stones. Once again Hoban was appointed architect and he supervised the restoration work, which was completed in 1817.
James Hoban lived and worked in Washington DC, and became a major property owner in the city, establishing himself as one of America’s first prominent Irish Catholic citizens. He died in his adopted city during December 1831.