Hoban’s inspiration

I got a substantive question from visitor Andrew on James Hoban’s sources which I have been unable to answer, but I know some regular readers have more insight into the subject:

I am curious about the possibility of James Hoban having used an architectural reference book when designing the White House front elevation.

A few months ago, when I was browsing in my local university library, I stumbled on the book The United States Capitol: Designing and Decorating a National Icon, edited by Donald R. Kennon (published by Ohio University Press, in Athens, OH, in 2000). On page 32 of this book is reproduced an elevation drawing of Leinster House (Hoban’s inspiration for the White House). The engraving in question was originally taken from the 1780 architectural reference book Views of the most remarkable public Buildings, Monuments and other Edifices in the City of Dublin, written by Robert Pool and John Cash.

This engraving is most notable because in one regard it seems to be an intermediate step between the actual Leinster House as built and Hoban’s final plan for the two-story White House. Specifically, the elevation is much as Leinster House actually looked in the 1780’s (judging by a 1792 painting reproduced in William Seale’s The White House: The History of an American Idea) except for the second-story window pediments, which are inaccurate.

The actual Leinster House has (and has always had, going by the painting in Seale’s book) window pediments that are arranged (in terms of rounded vs. pointed pediments) much differently than those on the White House first-story windows. However, the engraving of Leinster House published by Pool and Cash, reproduced by Kennon et al., incorrectly shows the front side of Leinster House with second-story window pediments arranged almost exactly like those on the first-story front of the final White House.

Because of this inaccurate detail which was reproduced in Hoban’s designs, I think it quite possible that Hoban had a copy of this 1780 book, which he would have used to refresh his memory about Leinster House’s architecture when designing the original 3-story WH plan. Moreover, judging by the floorplan and partial side elevation which survive of his original three-story concept, it is quite possible that the Pool and Cash elevation is very close to what Hoban originally had in mind before budget costs forced a reduction in scale of the project.

I always thought that Hoban was indeed working from an architecture book and not from personal study of Leinster House, but I don’t recall seeing the book named.


4 thoughts on “Hoban’s inspiration

  1. Hi Andrew. You pose some interesting questions, and not all of them can be answered with certainty, but I think we can make some reasonable suppositions.

    Hoban was from Dublin and undoubtedly knew Leinster House first hand. Leinster House was constructed in 1745, and while I don’t recall the date Hoban emigrated to the United States, I do remember that he received his initial training in Ireland. That being said, this doesn’t mean that Hoban didn’t crib from some of the published drawings and prints of Leinster House for his design of the White House. There are pretty strong indications that he cribbed from several different views at different points in the development of the design.

    Hoban’s original design of the White House doesn’t appear to have included pediments over the windows on any of the floors. They don’t show in the wall section that he drew with the original floor plan. The pediments were probably added at part of the enlargement and embellishment of the house ordered by Washington, along with the pediment over the frontispiece and the pilasters on the east, south and west elevations. Hoban’s White House looked more like Leinster House after these changes than did his original design.

    In the earliest surviving elevation of the White House done by Hoban, which shows the White House with the lowered profile after the “rustic” was removed, the pattern of the round and pointed window pediments is the reverse of that in Leinster House. He may very well have taken this from the Pool and Cash engraving, or he may have come up with the idea on his own. It’s impossible to know for sure unless we got some documentation that Hoban owned or had access to the engraving.

    One view of Leinster House that Hoban undoubtedly had access to was the drawing done by T. Cunningham, done in 1790. In this drawing, the spacing of the windows on either side of the frontispiece is wider than that actually built at Leinster House, disrupting the classical module that was such an important principal of Palladian design. Hoban reproduced this detail at the White House, thus giving more width for what are now the grand staircase and the usher’s office, and also making room on the south side for the blue room without reducing the width of the red and green rooms to ridiculous proportions. This detail is so unusual, and so contrary to Palladian orthodoxy, that Hoban must have gotten the idea from Cunningham’s print. However, Hoban’s windows are much larger in proportion to the overall building than Leinster House or any other English Palladian house I am familiar with. This was probably a concession to Washington’s hot climate.

    Personally, I think Leinster House’s influence on the design of the White House tends to be overstated. It was undoubtedly a model, but I doubt it was the only model, and Hoban’s original design resembled Leinster House even less than the completed house did. English Palladian architecture was very much a formulaic style of architecture. Often these buildings were designed by educated noblemen of taste rather than by architects (in our sense of the word) who would then direct their builders. This made for something of a “mix-and-match” method of composition. “I’ll take the order from this building, the plan from that building, the window details from another building,” etc. In the hands of a good designer it could lead to wonderfully creative designs, but it also led to many designs that were, quite frankly, boring. Personally, I think the White House is a better work of architecture than Leinster House itself, mainly because of the alterations made by Washington and Hoban to the original design.

    PS: Google has forgotten who I am AGAIN! (Grrrrrr.)

  2. “Personally, I think the White House is a better work of architecture than Leinster House itself” ~ Chris

    I agree.

  3. Hello: First, I must commend you on such a wonderful web site. I have learned so much! Secondly, what is considered the definitive architectural style of the White House? I see Palladian, then Georgian tossed about. Thank you!

  4. Thanks! The White House is considered Federalist in period (late 1700s-early 1800s) but sort of a throw-back to the slightly earlier Georgian period in its neoclassical style.

    The architects of the first American government buildings had a strong sense of the history of the origin of democracy in ancient Greece and the Roman Republic, so they looked around for neoclassical styles that were compatible with the current architecture. It was Palladio’s neoclassical designs from two centuries earlier that were most popular at the time, and it’s hard to deny the influence. But the White House isn’t topped with statues of trumpeters and other ornaments–that’s the Federalist period taste for simplicity exerting itself.

    The Truman balcony is, some would argue, brutalist style.

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