Words Dolores O’Donoghue
How the son of an Irish tenant farmer rose from journeyman carpenter to become the architect of the world’s most famous house
James Hoban, born in 1758, was the son of an impoverished tenant farmer on the estate of Otway Cuffe, the Earl of Desart near Callan, Kilkenny. Luckily, this particular landlord was of a more enlightened disposition than most and provided a basic education for the children of his tenants at a school on the estate.
The school also offered tutoring in carpentry, wheelwright skills and stonemasonry, which Hoban took advantage of. These skills would no doubt be useful to him in what was assumed would be his future as a tenant or tradesman on the estate.
James had a great talent for drawing and design and, under the patronage of the Earl, attended the Dublin Society’s Drawing School. Here his work won him the prestigious Duke of Leinster medal and also impressed Thomas Ivory, the school’s principal. Ivory also had a private design practice and Hoban worked with him on the construction of notable Irish buildings such as Dublin’s City Hall and the Custom House. Although beginning to make a name for himself in Ireland, he decided to emigrate to America in 1785.
In 1792, at President George Washington’s request, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson announced an architectural competition to produce design drawings for a new home for America’s president. Having established himself as the architect of many fine homes and public buildings, including the Charleston County Courthouse, Hoban entered the competition. As he set about this challenge, he looked to his native country for inspiration. He looked to the work of his mentor, Thomas Ivory, to that of Edward Lovett Pearse and most especially to Richard Cassel’s design of Leinster House. In July 1792, George Washington and three commissioners reviewed the entries and selected Hoban’s design for the executive mansion.
As with Leinster House, the White House has a triangular pediment supported by four round columns with three windows beneath the pediment. On each side there are four windows on each level with alternating triangular and rounded window crowns and there are two chimneys, one on each side of the building.
Hoban had to incorporate several modifications to his initial design, which were demanded by the commissioners, one of which was an order to reduce the building from three stories to two. Sadly the first president of the United States, George Washington, the man who had instigated the building of the presidential residence, never got to live there. The first residents, President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved into the mansion early in November 1800.
When President Kennedy addressed Dail Eireann at Leinster House in 1963, he paid tribute to Hoban. ‘Features of this stately mansion served to inspire similar features in the White House in Washington. I know that the White House was designed by James Hoban, a noted Irish-American architect, and I have no doubt that he believed, by incorporating several features of the Dublin style, he would make it more homelike for any President of Irish descent.’
Another proud Irish-American president now resides in this famous house; I’m sure he feels right at home there!
- ‘James Hoban: The Irishman who designed The White House’ is published in Anthology Volume 15. Read more features from this volume or buy it now.
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