The story of James Hoban: The Irishman who built the White House

Back in 2014, when Joe Biden was the US Vice President, he stood in the White House’s East Room with cameras recording his every move. Positioned in front of American flags and Irish tricolours, he spoke:

“In 1963, President Kennedy addressed the Irish Parliament and he said, and I quote, ‘Our two nations, divided by distance, have been united by history… and nothing exemplifies this bond more than this building. It was designed by an Irishman named James Hoban.”

Biden, who is now 46th President – and the 23rd to come from Irish descent – is quick to recognise the contributions Irish people have made to the US. But, in the case of James Hoban, his success and influence is largely owed to America’s first president, George Washington.

A success story beginning with meagre means

James Hoban was born around 1760 near Callan, Co. Kilkenny. Although the details of his early life aren’t completely clear, we know he was born to Martha and Edward Hoban and had at least three siblings – Joseph, Philip and Ann.

The family lived in a thatched cottage on the huge Desart estate which belonged to a wealthy Baron named John Cuffe. Hoban’s father was probably a tenant farmer or a laborer on the estate. The precise connection isn’t known, but Hoban was educated while living here and became a skilled carpenter and wheel maker.

Hoban must have shown skill because, despite his modest upbringing, he went on to study at the Dublin Society’s School of Architectural Drawing in 1780. Because the Society aimed to advance the arts in Ireland, poor students who displayed great talent didn’t have to pay fees to attend.

At the school, which was based on Grafton Street, Hoban won a Duke of Leinster medal for drawings of brackets, stairs and roofs. The school’s principal Thomas Ivory, who was responsible for lots of Dublin’s Georgian buildings, then employed him as an apprentice.

Emigrating to America

Leinster House in Dublin, which provided inspiration for The White House design

Hoban became an ambitious architect and, by 1785, he had emigrated to Philadelphia to seek out success. But by April 1787, he had relocated to Charleston in South Carolina where his Georgian style architecture began to appear among the city’s post-revolution buildings.

Records from the Charleston County Public Library show that Hoban wasn’t alone in the city. Other members of the Hoban family, including his brothers Philip and Joseph, were also living there at this time.

Partnering with an Irish carpenter called Pierce Purcell, Hoban worked on both public buildings and private houses. Their work included the thousand-seat Charleston Theatre and the Charleston County Courthouse.

For use as his home and office, Hoban also bought a plot of land and built a three-story structure on it. In 1790, he opened a drawing school here as well.

By May 1791, when George Washington visited Charleston as part of his southern tour, Hoban was a prominent figure in the community. He was made known to the president when local leaders were guiding him through the city and pointing out its most prestigious buildings.

A 1972 report in the Charleston City Gazette, which is in the Charleston Library’s archives, said: “Mr. Hoban was introduced to him as a man of merit and of genius, under the patronage of General Moultrie, Mr. Butler, &c.”

At this time, Pierce Butler was a senator and a rice planter. But as one of America’s three Irish-born founding fathers, he was also a trusted associate of Washington so his recommendation held significance.

Building the White House

The North Portico of The White House, added in 1830

Originally a French-born architect called Pierre Charles L’Enfant was supposed to build the president’s house. In 1791, he even chose the site and laid some of the building’s foundations.

However, he wanted to build an extravagant palace and had plans to make it four times larger than the structure that was eventually built. This led to a disagreement with the president’s commissioners, who wanted a conservative design distinct from the architecture beloved by royalty.

In February 1792, L’Enfant was dismissed and the commissioners launched a public competition instead. Remembering Hoban’s work in Charleston, George Washington invited him to submit drawings. He even travelled to the capital to discuss his designs with the president.

Hoban’s design was based on another iconic building, which he had admired while studying in Dublin over a decade earlier. Leinster House, which was designed by Richard Cassells back in 1745, provided inspiration for his proposed façade. This was the design chosen by Washington.

Over the next eight years, Hoban oversaw the construction of the president’s house. But Washington would never live there. His successor John Adams was the first to move in and, even then, the building was incomplete and extremely cold. Every president since then has made it their home too.

Though Hoban had no shortage of work to do in the District of Columbia, he soon returned to work on the White House once again. 

During the War of 1812, which actually lasted just under three years, British soldiers marched on the capital and burned everything in sight – including the president’s home.

James Hoban was appointed to restore the building. This time it took just three years to complete, because he was able to retain the exterior walls of whitewashed sandstone, which had withstood the flames.

Since then, Hoban’s original design has endured many other changes. The building has been extended several times and, in 1952, President Harry S. Truman renovated everything but the house’s exterior. So Hoban’s iconic north-facing façade has always remained the same.

James Hoban’s legacy

James Hoban’s design for The White House

When James Hoban moved to Washington, the city was bare and dusty. But, as well as being in charge of the White House’s construction, he was also the superintendent of all the city’s public works.

He presided over the completion of the Treasury and War Department and the US Capitol Building. He also designed hotels and churches, but very few of these buildings still stand today.

In Ireland, Rossenarra House and Kells Glebe House in Kilkenny are based on designs he made later in his career. Locals even say the latter building was based on a rejected proposal for White House.

Beyond architecture, Hoban was one of America’s first prominent Catholics. He helped to fund and build many Catholic institutions, including Georgetown University.

He also established schools and, according to the White House Historical Association, founded the Society of the Sons of Erin, which helped Irish workers who needed housing, food and medicine.

As a local politician, he gave a voice to immigrants and was in favour of the abolition of slavery. Never the less, he owned a number of slaves himself – three of whom were carpenters who worked on the White House. Records show Ben, Daniel and Peter were their names.

Hoban lived and worked in Washington until his death on 8th December, 1841. By this time, he was a rich man who owned many properties across the District of Columbia. Some of his ten children left a mark on the city too – as attorneys, priests and naval officers.

James Hoban, along with hundreds of other inspirational Irish emigrants, are remembered at EPIC. Discover more with our virtual museum tour.