A new episode of the White House Historical Association’s 1600 Sessions podcast has been released about Kilkenny man James Hoban, the designer of the White House. It explores the Irish roots of White House builder James Hoban and features Association President Stewart McLaurin, who travels to Hoban’s birthplace to learn about the architectural styles and designs that influenced the young Irishman. before he left Ireland.
Born in Callan in 1755, Hoban grew up near Desart Court, the estate of the Earl of Desart. He worked as a wheelwright and carpenter until his early twenties, when he managed to obtain an “advanced student” place at the Royal Dublin Society School of Drawing in Architecture, paid for by the Desart family. There he studied with Thomas Ivory, an important figure in the construction of Georgian Dublin, who would have a strong influence on Hoban’s career. Hoban excelled in his studies and was awarded a medal in 1780 by the Duke of Leinster for his drawings of architectural detail.
Local folklore says Hoban also designed the Palladian Rossenarra House near Kilmoganny in Kilkenny in 1824, although there is no actual evidence of this. The painter Sir Joh Lavery died there in 1941 as he was a relative of the owners.
After the American Revolution, Hoban emigrated to the United States and by 1795 had established himself as an architect in Philadelphia. He traveled to South Carolina in 1787 where he was responsible for many buildings, including the Charleston County Courthouse. This building was so admired by George Washington during his tour of the South in 1791 that he later summoned Hoban to Philadelphia (then the temporary capital) in 1792.
There Hoban was named the winner of a competition to design the President’s new home. His original designs had three stories and a nine-bay facade, but under Washington’s influence this was changed to two stories and an 11-bay facade. Washington also insisted that the entire facade of the mansion be clad in white stone.
By the words of a lowly but able man, Hoban was also appointed to oversee the construction of the President’s residence on a salary of 300 guineas a year and remained in Washington for the rest of his life. In total, the Kilkenny man devoted 29 years of his life to the White House, including a rebuild from 1815 to 1829 after a fire, when his use of white paint to camouflage the blackened building gave rise to the name White House .
In the report, Stewart McLaurin speaks to a number of Irish people about James Hoban’s life, influences and background, including Laurie Grace of the James Hoban Society of Ireland, Callan’s brother Christy O’Carroll, Ciaran O’ Connor the State Architect and Architects. Merlo Kelly and Brian O’Connell.
Laurie Grace, describes Hoban’s early life near Callan and how the dramatic design of Desart Court may have influenced his design for the White House decades later. It also highlights how the very high standard of architecture in Dublin at this time shaped Hoban’s aesthetic and how prestigious buildings such as the Royal Exchange (now Dublin City Hall) and Leinster House are also said to have influenced the young Hoban. .
The modern monument to Hoban built in 2008, near his birthplace (to mark the 250th anniversary of his birth) also features prominently.
Ciaran O’Connor, the State Architect, describes how Palladian architecture was Ireland’s defining architectural style at the time and how Leinster House (then the home of the Duke of Leinster) was a prime example. Merlo Kelly shows Stewart inside the old Newcomen Bank building near City Hall. Records show that Hoban, worked for Ivory on the design of the building and his three oval rooms have distinct echoes of the oval rooms he would later feature in the White House building. She explains how Hoban also absorbed influences relating to form, detail and intelligent use of space from the Dublin building.
Finally, architect Richard O’Connell talks about the Rotunda building on Dublin’s Northside and its influence on Hoban. It describes how Richard Cassels, a German, introduced the Palladian style to Ireland and explains how it is grounded in geometry and symmetry, with columns being a notable design feature. O’Connell explains how Palladian buildings typically have a central axis or bay flanked by column or wing extensions on each side. Another characteristic of these buildings is that they thin out as the building rises, often culminating in a summit. He reveals that all of these elements were used by Hoban in the design of the White House.
George Washington wanted the White House to make a statement and be a suitable home for the first gentleman. As an 18th-century landowner, he knew classics and architecture and wanted a building that would convey the status of the presidency. He and Hoban, as former citizens of the British Empire, would have been influenced by the styles favored by aristocrats such as the Duke of Leinster in Ireland, and Hoban had the ability to reinvent this type of design in an American context. .
Hoban was also employed at times to oversee construction of the Capitol as well as other public and private buildings in Washington. In his personal life, he married a Susannah Sewell, with whom he had ten children, including James, who later became a Washington district attorney.
James Hoban died in Washington in December 1831, leaving an estate worth $60,000. His life had exemplified the “rags to riches” of the American dream: he had certainly come a long way from the cottage on the desert estate to creating an iconic and enduring symbol of American power at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. .
The episode can be viewed at https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-white-house-1600-sessions/white-house-builder-james-hobans-irish-roots