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South Carolina Roots in the White House

A new book about James Hoban explores the life and work of the designer and builder of the White House, who was based in Charleston.

James Hoban was originally from Ireland, but he was based in Charleston, South Carolina. In addition to the White House in Washington, D.C., he is also known for building the Charleston Theater. A new anthology, out today, titled James Hoban: Designer & Builder of the White House by Stewart D. McLaurin, has the world’s most knowledgeable scholars on Hoban introduce us to him and present the story of his life, influences and work.

Read an excerpt from James Hoban: Designer & Builder of the White House below.

James Hoban is remembered as the designer and builder of the White House. He was born in County Kilkenny, Ireland, in 1755 and studied at the Dublin School of Architectural Drawing before immigrating to the new United States. His first documented appearance in America is in a notice he placed in the Charleston and Philadelphia newspapers in May 1785, which broadcast his skill:

Any Gentleman who wishes to build in an elegant
Style, may hear of a person properly calculated for
That purpose who can execute Joinery and Carpenter’s
Business in the modern taste apply James Hoban.

Hoban soon found himself in Charleston, South Carolina, on the doorstep of Pierce Purcell, an established local carpenter and probably one of his cousins originally from Ireland. The medal he brought with him for “Drawings of Brackets, Stairs, Roofs, &c,” had been presented to him by the Dublin Society [and] its School of Architectural Drawing, which he attended. Soon enough Hoban was in partnership with Purcell and lived with the Purcells at 43 Trott Street (later Wentworth Street) in the Ansonborough addition to the old city.

In the partnership of Hoban & Purcell, Pierce Purcell was very aware of the value of his new, young partner’s qualifications in attracting business. Hoban had Irish credentials in a city with prominent Irish politicians and national statesmen, and others of note besides. The tone of Irish society was high and the will to build grandly certainly current. Hoban and Purcell were tradesmen, neither ones members of the Irish Roman Catholic Hibernian Society. But they made themselves visible in other ways, as founders of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the first in Charleston, and, curiously, also founding members of the Masonic Lodge of Charleston. And some buildings of their era in Charleston, long attributed to amateur “gentleman architects” such as the venerable attributions of several buildings to Judge William Drayton Sr., may well have been theirs.

Their notable and best-documented triumph was in gaining the contract for building the Charleston Theater, and there is mention of planning funding for an orphans’ “asylum.” Postrevolutionary wealth of the Low Country plantations and the new flowering of the port created a major consumer class in Charleston that longed for the luxury and culture associated with cities such as Philadelphia, New York, and London. A fine theater was one of the main ornaments to a city, and Charlestonians began a subscription to pay for one projected by its ambitious design to be as grand as any that could be found./p>

Circumstances strongly suggest that they rebuilt the burned-out Charleston State House, which placed them on the edge of the then current controversy over retaining Charleston as capital of the state. Charleston, the capital of South Carolina, had long used a State House built in colonial times. As the traditional center of politics, it boasted its power and prestige. But the presence of a new Constitution in 1789 rather freed up the state’s sense of historical obligation and dependency upon Charleston. Moreover, the old State House had burned to its walls in 1788, taking away the practical argument in the city’s favor of already having a capital building. The legislature decided to move to Camden, inland halfway to the mountains, and then changed its destination to Columbia, a new town more favorable to the heart of the state by river and wagon road than Camden. In a rush to alter history’s course, the adherents of Charleston as state capital hurriedly rebuilt the old State House./p>

The reconstruction went quickly. The look of the finished State House was fresh and in a style not at all unfamiliar in the Anglo-Irish architecture both Hoban and Purcell had known in Ireland. Moreover, it was a simple architecture, an ordinary rectangle with a forward centerpiece of four attached Ionic columns mounted atop an arcaded projection from the basement level. The mode was common enough in Europe for public buildings, as town halls, but it was the first of its kind in America./p>

In late spring 1791, when President Washington made the southern branch of his nationwide tour, his new city [the capital on the Potomac] was very much on his mind. During this official visit to Charleston, James Hoban was presented to the president by General William Moultrie, Jacob Read, Henry Laurens, and other prominent residents, as a man of genius in building, his credentials apparently extolled. This must have taken place in the Heyward-Washington House. The next year Washington asked after the “practical builder” to whom he had been introduced in Charleston. He could not remember James Hoban’s name but had been favorably impressed at the time. Soon Hoban assembled his references, including the premier one from the patriot Henry Laurens, and placed these in the president’s hands in Philadelphia, having appeared without invitation./p>

Hoban had illustrations of houses that might work. We can only guess what some of these were, although it is highly possible that he owned Robert Pool and John Cash, Views of the Most Remarkable Public Buildings, Monuments and Other Edifices in the City of Dublin, published in 1780, its authors students in the drawing school Hoban attended. Washington wanted a house, not a monument, and told Hoban to proceed on his own./p>

It is well documented that the White House in its essentials is designed after the mansion in Dublin that was the principal residence of the Duke of Leinster, the leading and most widely respected peer in Ireland. This house, a country house in town built in the 1740s, was the basic model for the White House, with alterations. The winning design was first drawn out on paper by James Hoban and then redrawn by Hoban with alterations dictated by Washington, reaching final form reached in the fall of 1793.

Adapted from James Hoban: Designer & Builder of the White House. Courtesy of the White House Historical Association.

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