Book review: A Kilkenny farmer’s son designed the nation’s most revered neoclassical building and rebuilt it after British invasion

Appropriate to the day and date that celebrate the wearing of the green appears this handsome volume of history and analysis acquainting readers with the Irish immigrant of the book’s title and his profound influence on his adoptive country. Captained by White House Historical Association President Steward D. McLaurin, a squad of scholars offers multiple perspectives on Hoban, a figure familiar by name but elusive in context, as seen in the fact that the cover image, of a miniature wax bas-relief John Christian Rauschner made when the builder likely was in his 40s, is the only known picture of the man.

James Hoban: Designer and Builder</br> of the White House
By Stewart D. McLaurin
The White House Historical Association, 2021; $49.95

However, in these pages a fuller, if at times necessarily speculative portrait emerges. In the old country Hoban, son of Kilkenny tenant farmers, parlayed ready hands and a head for drawing into professional skills at carpentry, stonemasonry, and architecting.

A Catholic in subjugated Eire, he learned how to navigate interactions with that island’s Sassenach ruling class—for instance, becoming a Freemason. Having studied at the Dublin Society School of Architectural Drawing and toiled under a series of masters, absorbing their trades and techniques, he crossed the Atlantic in the early 1780s to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and, in the mode of Andrea Palladio, imaginatively and practically bootstrapped himself into the role of designer and builder of fine houses.

Watercolor of the President’s House showing the fire damage caused by the British on August 24, 1814, painted by George Munger in 1814-15. (White House Historical Association)

That was Hoban’s successful occupation in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1791 when, probably not entirely by chance, he met and chatted up President George Washington. Their conversation could have covered many topics; Washington, a fellow Mason and slaveowner, was, thanks to his youthful exploits as a surveyor and the middle years he had spent rebuilding and expanding Mount Vernon, well versed in boundary lines and bricks and boards. A year later, intent on getting a new capital city going from the ground up, the president was deciding who to hire for which project when he remembered a likely fellow he had encountered in Charleston—what was that Irishman’s name?—who had impressed him. As the authors document, Washington the president soon was commissioning Hoban the builder to come to Washington the city to undertake among other projects construction of a presidential residence.

Leading a force of White workers and enslaved tradesmen hired from their owners, Hoban built the “palace,” basing his design on those of Leinster House, a grand dwelling in Dublin, and Desart Court, a country house in Kilkenny on whose demesne he was born. His de facto integrated work force lasted until 1797 when the White laborers protested the pay meted out to their Black counterparts. The house was not finished in 1800 when President John Adams moved in, and Hoban worked on it another two years. After British troops torched the place in 1814 he rebuilt it. Aside from that continuing engagement Hoban built government edifices, rental dwellings, and a home of his own, long since demolished, around Washington. A businessman of his times, he traded in people held in bondage. Devoted to his faith, he helped found parishes in Charleston and in the capital, where he designed and built the church of St. Patrick’s, eventually adding a complex to house the Washington Catholic Seminary, a secondary school for boys to which he sent sons James Jr. and Henry, and which evolved into what is now Gonzaga College High School.

James Hoban chronicles in much greater detail than can be enumerated here those stories and many others, in the process presenting as full a portrait of its subject and his surroundings and colleagues as might be possible. The volume itself is beautifully made, a visual and tactile prize divided between vividly wrought and reasoned text and striking illustrations that should guarantee that James Hoban no longer lurks in the shadows. —Michael Dolan is editor of American History.