How Ireland Inspired the White House

Architect James Hoban Brings Leinster House to America

White House North Facade with pediment and columns Seen Through Iron Fence and snow-covered lawn
Looking Through Gate Toward The White House, 1800. Win McNamee/Getty Images

When architect James Hoban began designing the White House in Washington, D.C. architectural ideas came from his native Ireland. 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 this Classic style is found around the world — especially in the public buildings of democratic governments. Architects take ideas from everywhere, and public architecture is ultimately no different than building your own home — architecture expresses the occupant and architectural ideas often come from buildings already built. Look to Leinster House, one of the buildings that influenced the design of America's Executive Mansion in 1800.

The Leinster House in Dublin, Ireland

Front Facade of Georgian style 2+ story stone mansion with pediment and four engaged columns protruding from the siding
Leinster House, 1748, Dublin, Ireland. 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 1748, 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.

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, the same year America declared its independence from Britain.

Hoban in Charleston, South Carolina, 1792

black and white photo of multi-story facade with pediment and columns
Charleston County Courthouse, 1792, Charleston, South Carolina. Boucher, Jack E., Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

James Hoban left Ireland for Philadelphia around 1785. From Philadelphia, he moved to Charleston, South Carolina, a booming colony, and set up a practice with fellow Irishman Pierce Purcell, a master builder. Hoban's design for the Charleston County Courthouse may have been his first neoclassical success. At least it impressed George Washington, who saw it as he passed through Charleston. Washington invited the young architect to Washington, D.C. to plan a new residence for the presidents of the United States.

When the new country, the United States, was forming a government and centering it in Washington, D.C., 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.

The White House in Washington, D.C.

Painting of large white rectangular mansion with burned out windows but largely with an in tact exterior
Painting by George Munger c. 1815 of the President's House After the British Burned It. Fine Art/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, D.C. was burned by the British in 1814 shows a striking similarity to the Leinster House. The front facade of the White House in Washington, D.C. 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.

Stormont in Belfast, Northern Ireland

facade of a multi-storied stone building, horizontally oriented, with center portico six columns wide
Stormont, 1932, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Tim Graham/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 U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. However, the Stock Market crash of 1929 brought economic hardships and the idea of a dome was abandoned.

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 may have been only the beginning.

Sources

  • Leinster House - A History, Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas Leinster House, http://www.oireachtas.ie/parliament/about/history/leinsterhouse/ [accessed February 13, 2017]
  • Leinster House: A Tour and History, Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas Leinster House, https://www.oireachtas.ie/viewdoc.asp?fn=/documents/tour/kildare01.asp [accessed February 13, 2017]
  • Knapper, Ian. Portland Stone: A Brief History, https://www.ianknapper.com/portland-stone-brief-history/ [accessed July 8, 2018]
  • Bushong, William B. "Honoring James Hoban, Architect of the White House," CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship, Volume 5, Number 2, Summer 2008, https://www.nps.gov/crmjournal/Summer2008/research1.html