James Hoban – an architect to remember

A fascinating diary article in today’s Irish Times by Brian O’Connell[subs req] on the life and legacy of James Hoban – and the marking, later this month, of the 175th anniversary of his death in 1831, part of a series of commemorations planned by the Consortium of James Hoban Societies over the next two years. Hoban was born c 1758 in Desart Kilkenny, on the estate of the Cuffe family.. although Wikipedia disagrees on the date, as does this short bio. His design, based on Leinster House, for the President’s House was selected by George Washington in 1792 and Hoban worked on building, rebuilding and enhancing what would become the White House, including the repairs that were needed after that fire in 1814. He also became a trusted advisor to three of the five presidents who held office during his time in Washington.After training and working in Dublin, his professional life after immigrating to America around 1782 is described at the James Hoban Society website

James Hoban practiced as an architect in Philadelphia, Charleston (South Carolina) and Washington over a period of almost fifty years. His work in Philadelphia and Charleston is not well documented, but his record was sufficient to impress President George Washington and have him request Hoban’s involvement in the building that would become The White House. Hoban worked on building, rebuilding and enhancing the President’s House for almost forty years. He was also involved, as architect, surveyor or project manager, in the construction of The U.S. Capitol, the first buildings to house the Departments of the Treasury and War, The Octagon and a number of commercial and residential buildings in the Washington area. James Hoban was an extensive property owner and had other commercial interests.

Along with some other wonderful details

With his wife Susan Sewell James Hoban had 10 children. He also owned 9 slaves. His civic involvement was notable and he acted at various times as militia leader, census taker, and member of district bodies, including Washington City Council, where he served for more than a quarter of a century. As well as being a founding member of the First Federal Lodge of the Freemasons, he was also a lifelong member of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, whose establishment he secured, bringing the Dominican Fr. Andrew Caffrey from Dublin to act as pastor. James Hoban died in 1831, and was buried in St. Patrick’s, then later at Mount Olivet Cemetery, where his gravesite and memorial stone were recently refurbished (1998).

There was a joint issue of two stamps in 1981 in the US and Ireland

And the Irish Times article has some other details to note as well

Hoban’s efforts have been consistently recognised on Capitol Hill, with Bill Clinton remarking in 2000 to Bertie Ahern that he sometimes felt haunted by the ghost of James Hoban. Kilkenny County Council and the Office of Public Works now have the responsibility to erect a monument fitting a man of Hoban’s architectural stature, and initiate the process of raising awareness of Hoban’s extraordinary achievements.

Plans are well advanced for the development of a James Hoban Memorial Arbour close to his birthplace at Desart. The memorial will incorporate landscaped areas, stone features and display elements, as well as a recreational area for visitors. The site is scheduled for completion this month.

It is also proposed to produce an illustrated booklet-style publication to highlight Hoban’s work for the one million visitors who pass through the White House each year, with little knowledge of the building’s architect. Publication is scheduled for 2008.

When the Hoban Memorial is unveiled at his birthplace in Desart this month it is hoped that the architect will be elevated to his rightful place alongside Ireland’s greatest innovators instead of remaining a forgotten footnote in Irish emigrant history.

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  • return of the jazz workshop

    Great news he will be remembered although I would be interested in how the memorial was procured by Kilkenny County Council and the Office of Public Works- was this offered in competition? One would hope the architectural response acknowledges the dignity of his original work without regressing into Georgian pastiche although an ‘arbour’ would suggest otherwise!

  • Pete Baker

    was this offered in competition?

    That would be interesting to know.. and an appropriate tribute.

    There are, also, several other commemorations taking place over the next 2 years.. details at the James Hoban Society website [check the links at bottom of page]

    …including street plaques

  • return of the jazz workshop

    All great stuff. Our architectural contribution has been largely overlooked and commemorations like this will hopefully facilitate improved understanding both at home and abroad.
    My point on competition was maybe a wider comment on the reluctance to really engage architects in this country- probably need another thread for that one though!

  • Pete, Great post. I must admit that you helped me learn something of my own country’s history. regards

  • Pete Baker

    Thanks ch,

    there’s some great detail on what greeted the first residents, John and Abigail Adams, at the White House Historical Association website[also linked above]

    Hoban was hired to oversee construction. The cornerstone was laid on October 13, 1792. Stonemasons from Scotland, along with free laborers and hired slaves, worked on the building from spring through fall each year until November 1800, when John and Abigail Adams moved in. Adams came to a house that was still unfinished. Many of the plaster walls were still wet and fires were lit in many of the 39 fireplaces to help them dry. About half of the 36 rooms had not been plastered at all. There was a big hole where the Grand Staircase was planned, but not yet begun. The largest room in the house, the East Room, was also unfinished. Because Abigail Adams thought that the president’s laundry should not be hung to dry outside on the lawn for everyone to see, she set up lines in the East Room.

  • Elizabeth


    Thank you for the great history & info regarding his birth year. I am interested in finding the names of all of James Hoban’s 10 children. Does anyone have a list & when & where they were born? Have only seen via RootsWeb 3 children listed.

    Also have seen the architect’s name as James Andrew Hoban. Are there records in Ireland that tell of his parents?

  • Sur

    175th anniversary of his death in 1831

    Another example of declining educational standards.

    So at this rate the 160th anniversary of the famine which badly affected all of Ireland will be marked next year in Belfast?

  • Pete Baker

    Thanks, Elizabeth

    Perhaps one of Slugger’s readers can help with that information you seek?


    “Another example of declining educational standards.”

    Check the date of the original post.

  • Elizabeth

    Since I accidentally clicked on the wrong url to eliminated me from more postings, I’m inputting this bit in here.

    My interest in the names of the children comes from my researching my ancestors, which includes Margaret Hoban, my gg grandmother, who was born in 1820. Although the 1850 Savannah GA census stated that she was born in Ireland about 1820, I’ve also known some facts to be wrong found in censuses due to the census takers, etc. Her husband was from Clonmel, County Tipperary, Ireland, just a little ways from Callan, County Kilkenny. Great great grandmother was here in the United States for quite a number of years before she got married and had her 5 children in Savannah, Ga.

    The fact that Susan Sewell, the wife of James Hoban died in 1822, made me wonder about who had taken care of all of the children. I will add that my own mother died when I was 2 yrs. old, & my father finally remarried to have someone at home to be there for his 2 children. Likewise, I wondered if James Hoban had remarried after his wife died, so as to have someone there for his children. Being an active architect in his time must have been quite something with all of those children.

    If possible, I just hope someone has more information on this family and will follow up with comments.