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Washington remembers Kilkenny man who designed the White House

President’s home inspired by Leinster House in Dublin and other Irish buildings

On a bright cold Tuesday morning earlier this week a group of people gathered at Mount Olivet cemetery in Washington DC.

They were there to lay a wreath at the tomb of a man from Co Kilkenny who died nearly 200 years ago. The details of the man’s life remain, in many ways, a mystery but his greatest work is seen by hundreds of millions of people around the world on television nearly every day.

Among the organisations represented were the White House Historical Association, the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Also present were senior Freemasons and Juan R. Esposito-Garcia, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington.

The ceremony was to commemorate the memory of James Hoban, the man who designed the White House.


Stewart McLaurin, who literally wrote the book on Hoban, was one of the speakers. He is president of the White House Historical Association, which was established by Jacqueline Kennedy as a private body to maintain to museum standards the public areas of the presidential mansion.

This includes paying for the acquisition or maintenance of furnishings such as rugs and draperies as well as fine or decorative arts.

McLaurin tells me it is “absolutely crystal clear” that Hoban’s inspiration for the White House design was Leinster House in Dublin as well as buildings such as the former Newcomen Bank – now a Dublin City Council office near Dublin Castle with which he would have been familiar in Ireland before he moved across the Atlantic.

He says Hoban was born into a family of modest means in Kilkenny in 1755. He learned carpentry and also became a wheelwright before studying under the renowned architect of his day, Thomas Ivory.

McLaurin says that although the penal laws were fading in Ireland at the time, as a Catholic, Hoban would have been limited in attaining the heights of his profession. “Hoban left Ireland for United States in 1785 at about 30 years old to pursue his opportunities as a builder and designer of buildings.”

McLaurin says records suggest he spent some time in Philadelphia but later moved to South Carolina where it is believed he had relatives and where there was already a community of Irish builders.

He met the then US president George Washington in 1791 when he was on a tour of the area. He obviously made an impression and a little later when Washington was planning the new presidential home he remembered the young Irish architect.

“Even though there was a competition, Washington had his thumb on the scales and knew who he wanted. He selected Hoban”, McLaurin says.

“In the Newcomen Bank [building] you can see these perfectly proportioned oval rooms like those he designed for the White House – and you think this is clearly where he saw this idea of the oval room and he presented that to George Washington.

“You stand in these spaces and feel these inspirations. He brought those ideas to United States and it was exactly what Washington wanted. He wanted a great stone house because those were not as common in United States as in Europe, and Washington knew stone houses would be respected in the capitals of Europe.”

Although he worked on other projects such as St Patrick’s Church in Washington DC, it was to the White House that Hoban returned to again and again.

Apart from designing the original building, which was constructed between 1791 and 1800, he worked on rebuilding it after the British burned down the White House in 1814 and later was involved in adding on both the north and south porticos.

McLaurin says it is amazing that although Hoban is fundamental to the story of the White House, probably the most famous building in the US, his life story is not well known.

“Even in Kilkenny people tend to know of him but not about him,” he says.

Perhaps this is due to the absence of many contemporary records for historians to examine.

Hoban’s house was destroyed in a fire and along with it most of his personal papers and documents were lost.

There is only one, small portrait of Hoban known to be still in existence.

McLaurin concludes with a story. He says in Ireland Hoban won a building competition and was offered cash or a silver medal as a prize. He says Hoban realised the money would soon be spent and opted for the medal “as he could show it effectively as a resume when he came to United States”. Hoban’s medal is at the Smithsonian museum in Washington.