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209 years ago: The Irishman behind the White House

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

Two hundred nine years ago this week, on Oct. 13, 1792, hundreds of dignitaries gathered in Washington, D.C. Truth be told, few wanted to be there, for the future capital city was at the time little more than a swampy expanse of land, crossed here and there by unpaved streets. The event that drew them there, however, was the ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone of the new executive mansion. Standing at the forefront, next to George Washington, was James Hoban, the Irish-born architect who designed the building that would one day be known as the White House.

Hoban was born in Callan, Co. Kilkenny, in 1758. As a poor Catholic, he faced substantial obstacles in gaining higher education. Still, he somehow he managed to attend classes in architecture at the Royal Dublin Society. In 1780, Hoban’s skills earned him an award for his drawings.

Unable to find adequate work in Dublin after completing his studies, Hoban sailed for America, arriving in Charleston, S.C., in 1785. After a brief stint in Philadelphia, he returned to Charleston and began to acquire design commissions. Among the many significant edifices attributed to him include the South Carolina statehouse in Charleston and the new capitol building in Columbia. Hoban also taught architecture, counting among his students Robert Mills, future designer of the Washington Monument.

It was in 1791 that Hoban had the good fortune to meet President George Washington during the latter’s trip to South Carolina. Hoban impressed the president, as did his elegant Irish Georgian building designs. One year later, when Pierre Charles L’Enfant was fired as the chief architect of Washington, D.C., the president remembered Hoban and sent for him.

Hoban was invited to participate in design competitions for the Capitol and executive mansion. In mid-July 1792 Washington and three commissioners charged with overseeing the building of the new capitol city reviewed the entries. They rejected all 16 proposals for the Capitol (including Hoban’s), but selected Hoban’s design for the presidential residence.

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“If his industry an honesty are of a piece with the specimens he has given of his abilities,” wrote Washington to the commissioners, “he will prove a useful man and a considerable acquisition.”

Hoban’s inspiration for his design was Leinster House, a neoclassical structure built in Dublin in 1745. Both have 11 rows of windows with alternating triangular and rounded pediments, along with four central columns. Leinster House today serves as the home of the Irish Dail.

Several factors conspired to delay construction of the White House. To begin with, Hoban had difficulty recruiting sufficiently skilled workers. Few seemed interested in leaving established cities like Boston and New York to work in the swampy, undeveloped capital. Second, Hoban had to incorporate several modifications to his design demanded by the commissioners, not the least of which was an order to reduce the building from three stories to two.

Nonetheless, after eight years of construction, the White House was deemed ready for occupancy. The first residents of the White House, President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved in early in November 1800. To their great annoyance they found the house cold and much of the interior unfinished. They stayed only four months, since Adams lost the election to Thomas Jefferson.

Hoban’s White House commission paved the way for a long and successful career in Washington. He subsequently designed many of the city’s hotels, government buildings, and private homes. In 1802, he won a seat on the city’s city council, a position he held for the rest of his life. He was also a leading layman at St. Patrick’s, the Catholic Church he helped establish in 1794.

Hoban was called upon to build the White House a second time, after the British burned it during the War of 1812. In that incident several national treasures were saved by the quick thinking of two Irish Americans. First Lady Dolly Payne Todd Madison refused to leave the White House until she had secured the Declaration of Independence and Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington. Guiding her to safety was Charles Carroll, one of several Irish American signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Soon after the war’s end in early 1815, Hoban was hired to rebuild the White House. The entire interior and much of the exterior masonry had been destroyed in the blaze, so he essentially had to rebuild it from the ground up. Despite President James Monroe’s decision to move into the unfinished residence in 1817, work continued for two more years until halted with the onset of an economic recession in 1819. Construction resumed under Hoban’s direction in 1824, after Congress approved funds to complete the south portico. He returned to complete the north portico in 1829-30 — just in time for the first Irish-American president, Andrew Jackson.

James Hoban died in late 1831, at the age of 73. He left behind not only a substantial estate, but also a building worthy of the ages.

HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK

Oct. 11, 1984: Astronaut Kathleen Sullivan becomes first woman to walk in space while a crew member aboard the space shuttle Challenger.

Oct. 12, 1984: British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and several high-ranking government ministers are nearly killed when an IRA bomb explodes in Brighton.

Oct. 16, 1916: Margaret Sanger and her sister Ethel Burne open the first birth control clinic in the United States, in Brooklyn. Both will be arrested and sentenced to 30 days in jail.

HIBERNIAN BIRTHDATES

Oct. 10, 1900: Actress Helen Hayes born in Washington, D.C.

Oct. 14, 1882: President and Taoiseach of Ireland Eamon DeValera born in Brooklyn.

Oct. 15, 1858: Heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan born in Boston.

Oct. 16, 1854: Playwright Oscar (Fingal O’Flahertie Wills) Wilde born in Dublin.

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