Further thoughts on the White House’s foundations in Ulster

The theory shared here last Friday, that Washington’s White House may have been inspired by County Fermanagh’s Castle Coole, has been greeted with considerable interest.

Friday, 12th February 2021, 8:57 am
One of the Earliest Known Photographs of the White House circa 1846
One of the Earliest Known Photographs of the White House circa 1846

The official residence and workplace recently acquired by President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr Jill Biden (and assorted pet dogs!) was designed in 1792 by Captain James Hoban from County Kilkenny.

An officer in Washington’s volunteer militia, Hoban was also in charge of the construction of the city’s US Capitol from 1792 until 1802.

His White House took eight years to build and every President since John Adams has lived there.

The north front at Castle Coole, County Fermanagh. The house designed by James Wyatt was built between 1789 and 1795.

President Adams moved in on November 1, 1800 before building work had been completed and wrote to his wife Abigail from a damp, unfinished room: “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”

It has often been said that Hoban based his White House design on Leinster House, the home of the Irish Parliament in Dublin.

In fact, he designed the White House twice, the second time after it was burned down in 1814 by General Robert Ross from Rostrevor.

Last Friday, Queen’s University historian Colin Armstrong kindly shared his view here that “the differences between the White House and Leinster House are more obvious than the similarities.”

Dublin’s Leinster House in 1911

He stressed “unless archival evidence emerges it will have to stay hypothetical…but if there is an Irish model for the White House, Castle Coole would seem more a more plausible candidate than Leinster House.”

Colin outlined the main differences between the White House and Leinster House - “the former has two [storeys], the latter three” adding some more specialised, architectural analysis.

“One has a projecting portico (porch), the other does not, one has Ionic capitals on its columns, the other Corinthian; one has a bow (a curve) on its rear elevation, the other does not. The sole, obvious similarity is the alternation of segmental and triangular pediments over windows.”

Colin also referenced Richard Johnston, the Irish architect whose initial plans for Castle Coole in 1789 were revised and superseded in 1790 by the English architect James Wyatt.

Rostrevor's General Robert Ross Burned Down James Hoban's White House

And Colin explained that, like the White House, Castle Coole “has two [storeys] and a projecting portico with Ionic columns matched by a bow, also with Ionic columns, on its rear elevation” - features found on both Johnston’s and Wyatt’s drawings for Castle Coole, two years before Hoban designed the White House.

And intriguingly, Hoban and Johnston were in Dublin in the early 1780s when some of Wyatt’s distinctive buildings, like Mount Kennedy in County Wicklow, were already widely known.

But “there is no evidence that I know of,” Colin emphasises, that Johnston and Hoban were in contact after the latter left Ireland, nor is he “aware of a connection between Wyatt and Hoban”.

Hoban and Johnston “may have known each other and may have stayed in touch,” Colin hypothesises, underlining ‘may’ both times!

While some historians suggest that the floor plans of Leinster House and the White House resemble each other, Colin hasn’t compared them but he’s adamant “externally there is no strong similarity.

If you put photographs of Castle Coole’s exterior alongside pictures of the White House you will see the similarities. Compare the White House and Leinster House and you will see the dissimilarities.”

Summarising Colin’s intriguing theory, Richard Johnston’s designs for Castle Coole, probably adapted by James Wyatt, “have the main feature of an Ionic portico matched by an Ionic bow at the rear and matching wings.

“The Ionic portico and bow combination appears again at the White House.”

While the Dictionary of American Biography (1932) and the American National Biography (1999) both claim Leinster House was Hoban’s inspiration for the White House, Colin is steadfast.

“I still think that the differences between Leinster House and the White House are too great for this hypothesis to be acceptable.”

Apparently much of Hoban’s personal archive was destroyed by fire in the 1880s “though some documents survive in the US National Archives and the Office of the Architect of the Capitol” says Colin, who intends to continue searching for lists of the extant papers.

“In the absence of documents - or if there are none of relevance,” he concludes “my Castle Coole hypothesis will always be just a theory - though, I think, a more plausible one than the Leinster House one.”

And there’s another common suggestion that Hoban’s design for the White House was based on Château de Rastignac, a neoclassical country house built between 1789 and 1817 in the Dordogne.

Hoban never visited France, but some say he could have been told about the Château, or even seen drawings.

But Colin isn’t convinced.

The French building “seems to have a bow (curve) with Ionic columns but not a portico (porch) on the corresponding front façade,” he argues, adding, “I think it is the Ionic bow and portico combination which makes Castle Coole the most plausible model.”

And he has already discovered that there are over 760 references to Hoban in the catalogue of the US National Archives.

“I have yet to go through them all!” he says.

We’ll undoubtedly be hearing from Colin again, hopefully confirming that Leinster House is fake news and the White House has firm Ulster foundations!