James Hoban was born around 1758 in Desart near Callan, Co. Kilkenny, Ireland. His parents were Martha Bayne and Edward Hoban. We know he had three siblings – Joseph, Philip, and Ann – but there might have been more. The estate they lived on was owned by Baron John Cuffe. It is not sure what the position of the Hoban’s on the estate was, but they were not very well off.
James learned the skills of a carpenter on the estate. He was given the opportunity to go to the Dublin Society’s School of Architectural Drawing in 1780. This society was and is an Irish philanthropic organisation founded on 25 June 1731 to see Ireland thrive culturally and economically. It would become the Royal Dublin Society in 1820. They would not charge fees to talented but poor students. This is how James became an architect.
He specialised in the Georgian style then popular in Ireland. An excellent example of this style is Leinster House. It was constructed as a home for the Duke of Leinster and designed by the famous architect Richard Cassels. In 1815 it was purchased by the Dublin Society, the same society that had sponsored James’s education. In 1922 the newly formed Irish state rented the main meeting room as a temporary chamber for its parliament. It would become its permanent home.
Back to James: his first job was that of an apprentice to the school’s principal Thomas Ivory. But it was in the United States that he would make his fame. He moved shortly after the Thirteen Colonies had gained their independence, presumably attracted by the possibilities for advancement in the United States. He went where his work took him: first, in 1785, he worked in Philadelphia, then in 1787, he went to Charleston and Columbia in South Carolina, where he designed the Capitol building (burnt in 1865).
The new republic had made plans for a new capital, including a grand home for its president. In 1791 a French-born architect called Pierre Charles L’Enfant was hired, who chose the location. However, his designs did not meet the approval of the president’s commissioners as it was deemed too opulent. L’Enfant was fired and an open competition was held to find a replacement. James Hoban entered the competition and won. And this is how he got to design and manage the construction of possibly the most famous building on the planet right now: The White House.
It is sometimes said he modeled it on Leinster House. We rather believe they are both simply examples of the same Georgian design style, which is called Neoclassical in North America. Construction of the White House started in 1793 and was not finished until 1801. And then Hoban had to do it all over again: The first White House was burned down during the invasion by British troops from Canada in 1812, in an attempt by Britain to regain the colonies. This time the job took 3 years, as the building was not completely destroyed.
James also worked as a superintendent on the construction of the Capitol (designed by William Thornton) and designed the State and War Offices in Washington DC (1818) as well as many, many other buildings.
James Hoban was a local councilor in the District of Columbia. He founded a society (Sons of Erin) to help Irish workers with food, medicine, and a roof over their heads when they needed it. He would speak up for immigrants. But he also owned slaves, some of whom worked on the construction of the White House.
James was married to Susanna Sewall. They had 10 children and he had considerable wealth at the time of his death on 8 December 1831 in Washington. He is buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C.