Meet the Man Who Designed and Built the White House

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Thomas Jefferson designed Monticello. Frank Lloyd Wright created Falling Water. Paul Revere Williams designed the Beverly Hills Hotel. While many architects of iconic landmark buildings remain renowned, the man behind the White House is elusive and unknown.

Until now. On St. Patrick’s Day, the Irish architect of the White House is revealed with an anthology of scholarly essays, as well as historic photographs, sketches, maps, newspaper clippings, and drawings. James Hoban: Designer and Builder of the White House ($49.95), published by the nonprofit White House Historical Association, studies the man and his craft by spotlighting his largest feat, the White House.

James Hoban’s drawing of the White House in 1793.

“James Hoban’s story marks the beginning of the story of the White House itself,” says White House Historical Association president Stewart McLaurin, who edited the anthology. “I felt a comprehensive book on his life, influences, and accomplishments was long-overdue and decided to bring together a group of American, Irish, and British historians to share his story.”

The book addresses much of the mystery around the architect. McLaurin says that Hoban left little personal effects behind, and a fire in the 1880s destroyed Hoban’s papers. Only one wax portrait of him and several handwritten letters survive in the National Archives’ collection of Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia.

“It is curious, and atypical of architects of landmark buildings, that he is not more celebrated for his work on the White House like his contemporaries Benjamin Henry Latrobe or Charles Pierre L’Enfant are for their work in building the Federal City of Washington,” McLaurin says. The anthology hopes to change that. It includes detailed illustrations to accompany its prose, and draws interesting comparisons with the White House and contemporaneous Irish landmarks. Born in 1755, Hoban pulled inspiration for his designs from his youth in the Irish countryside. He was raised by rural tenant farmers on a country estate, called Desart Court, designed in the grand Palladian style. Neoclassicism, specifically neo-Palladianism, were the dominant architectural styles of Hoban’s time and can be seen in his sketches of the White House.

A drawing should Hoban’s original plans for the White House.

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