James Hoban – Architect of the White House Washington

Eamonn Kiely

If you go out the Callan road from Kilkenny and turn right at Ballymack Cross, about a kilometre from there you will find a modern memorial in glass to James Hoban. Just a couple of hundred meters short of it is an older stone memorial on the site where his two – roomed house stood. He was born in 1762. From that humble beginning he studied drawing under Thomas Ivory in one of the schools of the Dublin Society and in 1780 was awarded a premium for drawings of architectural details. He was involved in the building of some famous Irish buildings like The Royal Exchange (now Dublin City Hall) and The Custom House. He emigrated to the United States of America after their War of Independence and settled first in Philadelphia and in 1785 advertised his services as a joiner and carpenter.

Two years later he moved to South Carolina, where he met Gorge Washington, who was then on a tour of the Southern States. This led to his selection as one of nine architects who took part in the competition of 1792 for the design of proposed federal public buildings. He won the competition for the design of the President’s house, later called the White House. He was appointed to supervise its construction at a salary of 300 guineas a year. This involved his move to Washington where he stayed for the rest of his life.

The principal elevation of his design bore a distinct resemblance to Leinster House of 1751 in Dublin. Subsequent changes including some suggested by Washington and Thomas Jefferson and later additions by Benjamin Latrobe which were effected by Hoban resulted in the present well-known facade. Washington laid the cornerstone of the building onl3 September 1793 and Hoban assisted at the ceremony as master of the federal Masonic lodge which he had helped to organise a few days before. The building, still unfinished at the time, was first occupied by President Adams in 1800, and Hoban continued in charge until its initial completion in 1803.

At the same time Hoban was employed at intervals to superintend the construction of the Capitol as well as other public and private buildings. He also purchased numerous plots of land in and around the federal capital.

By 1799 he was captain of the Washington artillery, and in January of the same year he married Susannah Sewell, with whom he had ten children, one of whom, James became district attorney in Washington. The election of the multi-talented Jefferson as President from 1801-1809, who was also an architect, meant reduced government commissions for Hoban. He was elected to Washington city council in 1802 and remained a member until his death.

Towards the end of the Anglo-American War a detachment of British forces under General Robert Ross of Rostrevor County Down marched on Washington and burned some of the principal buildings, including the Capitol and the President’s House. The interior of the latter was destroyed but the stonework survived and Hoban supervised the work of rebuilding from 1815 to 1829. His use of white paint to camouflage the blackened building gave rise to the name White House.

During the same period, he was responsible for the design and construction of the state department and war department buildings, commenced in 1818. The Dictionary of American Biography describes him as ‘quiet and conciliatory, but self-respecting and capable of firmness when occasion demanded’ and refers to his ‘knowledge, abilities and probity’ as a ‘solid citizen and patriarch of the city’. He died in Washington on 8 December 1831 leaving an estate worth $60,000. He had come a long way from the Desert estate and the two-roomed house where my friend served station Mass as a boy.