How Ireland Inspired the White House

White House North Facade Seen Through Iron Fence
White House North Facade Seen Through Iron Fence. Photo by Win McNamee / Getty Images News / Getty Images
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The Leinster House in Dublin, Ireland

Front Facade of Leinster House, Dublin, Ireland
Leinster House, Dublin, Ireland. Photo ©Jeanhousen via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) (cropped)

Originally named the Kildare House, the Leinster House began as a home for James Fitzgerald, the Earl of Kildare. Fitzgerald wanted a mansion that would reflect his prominence in Irish society. The neighborhood, on the south side of Dublin, was considered unfashionable. But after Fitzgerald and his German-born architect, Richard Cassels, built the Georgian-style manor, prominent people were drawn to the area.

Built between 1745 and 1747, Kildare House was built with two entrances, the most photographed facade being the one shown here. Most of this grand house is built with local limestone from Ardbraccan, but the Kildare Street front is made of Portland stone. Stonemason Ian Knapper explains that this limestone, quarried from the Isle of Portland in Dorset, southwest England, for centuries has been the go-to masonry when "the desired architectural effect was one of grandeur." Sir Christopher Wren used it throughout London in the 17th century, but it is also found in the modernist United Nations Headquarters of the 20th century.

In 1776, the same year America declared its independence from Britain, Fitzgerald became the Duke of Leinster. Fitzgerald's home was renamed the Leinster House. Leinster House was greatly admired and became a model for many other important buildings.

Since 1924, the Leinster House has been the seat of the Irish Parliament—the Oireachtas.

Leinster's Links to the President's House:

It's been noted that Leinster House may be an architectural twin to America's presidential home. It's likely that the Irish-born James Hoban (1758-1831), who studied in Dublin, was introduced to the James Fitzgerald grand mansion when the Earl of Kildare became the Duke of Leinster—the name of the house also changed in 1776. When the new country, the United States, was forming a government and centering it in Washington, DC, Hoban remembered the grand estate in Dublin, and in 1792 he won the design competition to create a President's House. His prize-winning plans became the White House, a mansion with humble beginnings.

Source: Leinster House - A History and Leinster House: A Tour and History, Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas, Leinster House at; Portland Stone: A Brief History by Ian Knapper [accessed February 13, 2017]

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The White House in Washington, DC

Painting by George Munger c. 1815 of the President's House After the British Burned It
Painting by George Munger c. 1815 of the President's House After the British Burned It. Photo by Fine Art / Corbis Historical / Getty Images (cropped)

Early sketches of the White House look remarkably like Leinster House in Dublin, Ireland. Many historians believe that architect James Hoban based his plan for the White House on the design of Leinster. However, it's likely that Hoban also drew inspiration from the principles of Classical architecture and the design of ancient temples in Greece and Rome.

Without photographic evidence, we turn to artists and engravers to document early historic events. George Munger's illustration of the President's House after Washington, DC was burned by the British in 1814 shows a striking similarity to the Leinster House. The front facade of the White House in Washington, DC shares many features with the Leinster House in Dublin, Ireland. Similarities include:

  • Triangular pediment supported by four round columns
  • Three windows beneath the pediment
  • On each side of the pediment, four windows on each level
  • Triangular and rounded window crowns
  • Dentil moldings
  • Two chimneys, one on each side of the building

Like Leinster House, the Executive Mansion has two entrances. The formal entrance on the north side is the Classically pedimented facade. The president's backyard facade on the south side looks a bit different. James Hoban began the building project from 1792 to 1800, but another architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, designed the 1824 porticoes that are distinctive today.

The President's House wasn't called the White House until early in the 20th century. Other names that didn't stick include the President's Castle and the President's Palace. Perhaps the architecture was just not grand enough. The descriptive Executive Mansion name is still used today.

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Stormont in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Stormont in Belfast, Northern Ireland
Stormont in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo by Tim Graham / Getty Images News / Getty Images (cropped)

Over the centuries, similar plans have shaped important government buildings in many parts of the world. Although larger and more grandiose, the parliament building called Stormont in Belfast, Northern Ireland shares many similarities with Ireland's Leinster House and America's White House.

Built between 1922 and 1932, Stormont shares many similarities with Neoclassical government buildings found in many parts of the world. Architect Sir Arnold Thornley designed a Classical building with six round columns and a central triangular pediment. Fronted in Portland stone and ornamented with statues and bas relief carvings, the building is symbolically 365 feet wide, representing each day in a year.

In 1920 home rule was established in Northern Ireland and plans were launched to construct separate parliament buildings on Stormont Estate near Belfast. The new government of Northern Ireland wanted to build a massive domed structure similar to the US Capitol building in Washington, DC. However, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 brought economic hardships and the idea of a dome was abandoned.

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Focus on the Facade

North Facade of White House as Seen Through an Iron Fence
North Facade of White House as Seen Through an Iron Fence. Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images News / Getty Images

The architectural elements found on the facade of a building are determinants of its style. Pediments and columns? Look toward Greece and Rome as the first to have such architecture.

But architects take ideas from everywhere, and public buildings are ultimately no different than building your own home—architecture expresses the occupant in an affordable way.

As the profession of architecture becomes more global, can we expect more international influences to the design of all our buildings? The Irish-American ties were only the beginning.