- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 29, 2008

Everyone recognizes the White House, but few can name the Irish-American who designed it. The opportunity to get to know James Hoban (1758-1831), the least documented of the nation’s first architects, is now being offered at the White House Visitor Center in a small exhibition organized by the White House Historical Association for the 250th anniversary of Hoban’s birth.

Except for a model of the White House, the exhibit tells the story of his career through text panels filled with reproductions of drawings and photographs without benefit of historical artifacts related to the architect.

Such originals, it turns out, are extremely rare. Most of Hoban’s personal and business papers were lost in a fire in the 1880s, leaving historians with scant resources to narrate a full biography. Only two of his architectural drawings for the executive mansion survive, and most of his buildings have been razed.

Still, the show conveys enough facts and images to form an intriguing portrait of this designer, builder and developer, who wasn’t the most creative talent of his day but nevertheless devised a lasting symbol of the presidency.

Hoban won the competition for the executive mansion in 1792. He based his design mostly on the Georgian architecture of Leinster House (now the home of the Irish Parliament), a rather plain stone residence completed in 1750 for the Duke of Leinster. The architect knew the building from his student days in Dublin before he left for the United States in the 1780s.

George Washington liked the conservative architecture of Hoban’s winning proposal, thinking it dignified but not ostentatious like a palace. The president gave the Irish-born architect a huge advantage in the competition, having already met him a year earlier in Charleston, S.C., on the recommendation of local gentry.

Hoban was respected for his practical building skills in that city and had formed a partnership with Irish-born carpenter Pierce Purcell. The two may have designed the Charleston County Courthouse, among other projects.

After arriving in Washington, the architect reduced his design of the president’s house from three to two stories to save stone (the Capitol was being built at the same time). He showed his skills as a builder in devising a structure of stone facades lined with brick inner walls and vaults for support.

Such attention to detail led Hoban to become the first surveyor of public buildings from 1798 to 1802. In that position, he completed the north wing of the Capitol when the building ran into trouble; supervised the construction of English architect George Hadfield’s Treasury and War Department buildings; and monitored the construction of roads and bridges in the city.

As the exhibit explains, Hoban was also responsible for turning the executive mansion white when he applied a lime wash over the exterior walls to protect their porous sandstone from the elements. That finish was refreshed over time until 1818 when the building was permanently made white with lead paint.

The first resident of the White House was President John Adams, who moved into its sparsely furnished rooms in 1800. His successor, Thomas Jefferson, removed the privies on the property, shown in the White House model on display, and added water closets to the second floor.

After the British burned the house in 1814, Hoban repaired the structure and flanked it with four executive office buildings, which were eventually replaced. He also completed other structures in downtown Washington, but none of them survives. They included a brick hotel at 8th and E Streets Northwest for developer Samuel Blodget Jr. and the Gothic revival St. Patrick’s, the city’s first Catholic Church at 10th and E Streets Northwest.

In addition to running his architectural practice, Hoban led an active civic life as a city councilman, captain of the local militia and prosperous developer. He initiated a private fund to employ schoolteachers, start a volunteer fire brigade and help Irish workers.

At the same time, the architect owned slaves, whom he trained as carpenters to help him in his work. He was the landlord of a brothel run by madam Betsy Donoho, the wife of one of his employees, on Lafayette Square.

Still, Hoban kept returning to work at the White House.

He added a portico to the south side of the White House in 1824 for President James Monroe, and another five years later on the north for President Andrew Jackson. These designs may have been strongly influenced by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, a more inventive architect responsible for rebuilding and expanding the Capitol after its interiors were destroyed by the British.

A rival of Hoban’s, Latrobe dismissed his White House as “not even original, but a mutilated copy of a badly designed building near Dublin.”

The show doesn’t compare Hoban’s design to the current appearance of the White House, but a permanent exhibit across the room helps explain the differences in tracing the evolution of the property. It reveals that the most drastic alterations were carried out by National Park Service architect Lorenzo Winslow under President Harry S. Truman.

Fancying himself as a modern-day Hoban, Mr. Winslow extended the East and West wings and a balcony within the South Portico.

In response to “safety” concerns that the large amounts of wood in the house posed a fire hazard, he had the mansion entirely gutted, leaving only the exterior shell and renovated attic.

This radical renovation, unthinkable today, further erased physical evidence of Hoban’s talent. Yet, although the White House is now largely new, its painted stone facades and arrangement of main rooms still evidence the early American architect’s assured touch.

WHAT: “James Hoban: Architect of the White House”

WHERE: White House Visitor Center, 1450 Pennsylvania. Ave. NW

WHEN: Daily, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Nov. 2.

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/208-1631

WEB SITE: www.whitehousehistory.org

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