If you have never heard of James Hoban, you are not alone. He should be one of the most famous home-builders in United States history, yet he is relatively unknown.
Hoban designed and built, then restored and remodeled the most famous house in the United States: what was then called the Executive Mansion, now universally known as the White House
The White House today with its distinctive colonnaded porticos. It was first painted white by Hoban in 1814 to disguise fire damage. The porticos were not added until 1824.
James Hoban, was born near Callan, Kilkenny County, Ireland of a serving family employed by a local English aristocrat. Reportedly, his father was a builder, mason, carpenter and general jack-of-all-trades — and through his father, Hoban became interested in building and design.
Hoban's final Executive Mansion design. The earlier design of a three-story residence was modified at the request of then President George Washington for reasons of economy. The infant federal treasury could not afford the third story.
Although it was against the English law at that time to educate an Irish peasant, Hoban, a natural artist, won a drawing contest and a place at the then newly formed Dublin Society School (now the Royal School of Drawing). He studied architectural drawing which at that time meant the study of Greek and Roman classical buildings and their design elements.
Hoban then served as apprentice under the renown Irish builder Thomas Ivory, where he continued to study architectural drafting and worked with Master Ivory on the construction of the Dublin Exchange.
Emigrating to American in 1785, he was in Charleston, SC, by 1790. He became a noted designer and builder of plantation houses, and designed and completed Charleston's Court House and the "fireproof" state capitol in Columbia in 1791 (which, incidentally was burned to the ground by invading Federal troops in 1865).
Hoban moved to the nation's capitol, Washington, D.C., in 1792 where he entered a competition to design the proposed Executive Mansion residence of the President, and won, receiving the then princely sum of $500.00 for his work.
His design is believed to been greatly influenced by the Leinster House in Dublin. The Duke of Leinster was a patron of the Dublin Society School, and Hoban was acquainted with this locally famous house. It is widely believed that the curved facade for which the White House is architecturally noteworthy was a copy of the same feature on the Leinster House.
Hoban, having become a firm friend and protégé of Thomas Jefferson, was made superintendent of the project, completing most of it in only nine years, just in time for President John Adams to occupy the new building at the turn of the new century in 1800.
But by the end of 1814, Hoban's creation was just a charred shell, burned by a British army during its occupation of Washington. Restoration work under Hoban's supervision was completed in 1817. During this restoration, Hoban ordered the building painted white to hide remaining evidence of the fire — which color it has remained ever since. Hoban continued adding to the White House until 1829, at which time it looked essentially as it does today.
Hoban went on to become one of the new federal city's most respected citizens. He was Superintendent Architect of the Capitol from 1793 to 1802, took the city's first census, became a captain of the Washington artillery, and served as a lifetime member of the City Council. He designed and built a number of other federal buildings, including the Treasury Building and War and Navy Buildings, leaving a legacy that was "never approached in historical importance by any other single architect in the development of the city".
In addition to his public works, Hoban designed and built the John Mason Residence, Blodgett's Hotel, the Oak Hill mansion in Loudon County, Virginia, and St. Patrick's church, among others.
He died in Washington D.C. on December 8, 1831.
In the 1980s he made history for one final time when he was honored by a commemorative stamp issued simultaneously in Ireland and the USA — the first joint issue between the Irish Post office and any foreign post office ever to take place.
For more good reading, check out our complete articles index.A design-builder is a modern form of the oldest approach to creating buildings — that of the master builder. The master builder was originally a combination architect, engineer and builder, responsible for every phase of building a structure from initial concept to completion. He commanded the necessary resources: draftsmen, masons, carpenters, laborers, carvers and metal-workers, and dedicated them to the single-minded pursuit of excellence in design and construction.