Monday 16 March 2015

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
The United States of America

Because every American has an Irish Cousin including the home of the US President

The White House in Washington DC has many connections with Ireland, other than the numerous Presidents who all appear to claim Irish heritage. The famous home of the American President was designed by James Hoban, an Irish man. The White House has undergone many changes since it was built having been burnt in the early 1800’s and also had to be rebuilt again in the 1950’s when the building was declared structurally unsound. As a result the house has lost a lot of its original material but there is something that has survived from its completion in the 1800's, a portrait of George Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart. Stuart was an artist who spent time in Ireland and who painted numerous portraits including two paintings from Kilcooley Abbey in Co. Tipperary (see earlier post on Kilcooley Abbey on this blog from September 2014).

James Hoban featured on a stamp issued in the US in the 1980s

Kilkenny born architect, James Hoban, immigrated to the United States and had set up practice in Philadelphia in 1785. The first President of the United States, George Washington admired the work of the up and coming architect particularly the Charleston County Court House designed by Hoban. In 1792, Hoban was named the architect of choice to design the new presidential residence after an architectural competition. It is said that one of the houses that influenced the design of the future home of America’s President was Leinster House in Dublin which does bear a passing resemblance. The original design was a house with two stories over basement built of sandstone. There was a concern as to whether there would be enough good quality sandstone available as the Capitol building was also under construction at this time. Hoban overseen the construction of the house which had its cornerstone laid on October 13, 1792. The newly built, yet unfinished, White House was ready for occupancy in November 1800 when its new resident was the second president of America, John Adams. When the first occupant moved in to the house, in some rooms the plaster was still wet and other rooms were not plastered at all. The staircase was not installed, and the East Room which was just a shell was used to dry laundry as it was thought inappropriate to have the Presidents laundry on public display. The external walls were white washed to seal the porous sandstone which gave this famous house its name.

Design for the President's house by James Hoban submitted to the architectural competition in 1792.

The front of Leinster House, the seat of the Irish Government, is said to have been the inspiration for The White House in Washington.

In 1745 the foundation stone was laid for the new town house of James FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare. Kildare House – renamed Leinster House in 1766 when the Earl became Duke of Leinster – was designed by Richard Castle as a country house in town.

Charleston County Courthouse in South Carolina was also designed by James Hoban before The White House. The court house was admired by George Washington, the first president of the United States.

The artist, Gilbert Charles Stewart was born in America in 1755 of Scottish extraction; as a result of the Revolution he left America in 1775 for England. He developed a successful career there but was neglectful of his finances and as a result he fled to Ireland in 1787 to escape prison. He was successful in Ireland and became a very sought after portrait painter but he continued the tradition of accumulating debt and returned to the United States in 1794. He left behind him a number of unfinished paintings in Ireland but was unconcerned by this and was recorded as saying that ‘The artists of Dublin will get employment in finishing them’. It was during this time, after his return to America, that he painted the famous portrait of George Washington.  In 1796 he was commissioned to paint a portrait of George Washington to be given as a gift to the British Prime minister, William Petty Fitzmaurice who became the first Marquess of Lansdowne. As a result this portrait of the First American President became known as the Lansdowne portrait. The US government purchased a copy of this portrait from Stuart and it was put on display in the White House in Washington from which it made a miraculous escape.

The full length portrait of George Washington by the artist Gilbert Stuart was rescued from the White House before it was burnt to the ground in 1814.

The White House amazingly had just stood for over a decade when it was destroyed during a war which began between the United States and the United Kingdom in 1812. In August 1814, when British soldiers approached Washington, the President at the time, James Madison was the custodian of the White House. He had left Washington to join those confronting the British in Maryland leaving his wife Dolley behind in Washington. Dolley occupied herself by organising a dinner party however no one accepted an invite as they were too busy packing up and leaving town in fear of the approaching British army. Dolley passed her days on the roof of the house scanning the horizon for the approaching British. Eventually the time came to leave, a carriage was readied with what items from the vast house that could be carried and packed into the small wagon. As she was leaving the house, Dolley noticed the portrait of George Washington by Stuart hanging in the State Dining Room. There was no time to unscrew the painting from the wall so the picture frame was broken and the canvas removed. Dolley and the portrait escaped unharmed but unfortunately the same could not be said for the White House. The British troops vandalized the house, looted valuables and piled the furniture in the centre of all the State rooms to be burnt. The house was set on fire and by the following morning was a blackened shell. 

Shown above is the White House ablaze and below are the blackened walls of the Presidential residence after the fire which destroyed its interior and contents. 

It was decided that the house would be rebuilt preserving the exterior walls. Again James Hoban was called upon and was instructed to make it ‘as it was’ with no further embellishments. In 1817 after the renovations were completed the Washington portrait by Gilbert was returned and displayed in the White House. Today the portrait of George Washington hangs the East Room, a setting for important events but was used as a laundry when the house was first built. Hoban would return to his Washington commission on a number of occasions, in 1824 to add the portico to the house and in 1829 to make some further changes. Hoban died two years later in 1831, yet his name would live on forever because of his association with one of the most famous residences in the world.

President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House with the portrait of George Washington which was rescued before the house was burnt in 1814

Saturday 7 March 2015

Houses featured on Irish Banknotes
( those before the introduction of the Euro)

Avondale,Co. Wicklow
Home of Charles Stewart Parnell

Aras an Uachtarain Dublin
Formerly The Vice Regal Lodge which became the home of the Irish President beginning with the first holder of the office, Douglas Hyde 

Derrynane, Co. Kerry
Home of Daniel O'Connell