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Two Hundred Years Ago

March 2023
1min read

1600 Pennsylvania

On October 13 a cornerstone was laid for the Chief Executive’s residence, or “President’s Palace” as Pierre Charles L’Enfant and others referred to it in the unresolved language of the young republic. Throughout its lifetime the building would also be called the Executive Mansion, the President’s House, and the White House. Pennsylvania Avenue was still a cornfield when construction began on the plot above Goose Creek.

James Hoban, the building’s architect, was a young Irishman who had come to the United States after the Revolution and offered his services in a Philadelphia paper to “any Gentleman Who wishes to build in an elegant style.” He designed South Carolina’s state capitol in 1791 before meeting George Washington and entering the competition to design the President’s House in the new federal city by the Potomac. In June 1792 he won a competition that included an anonymous entry by Thomas Jefferson. The Secretary of State’s drawing called for a slightly smaller, domed Italian structure that would have fitted nicely into Monticello or Jefferson’s University of Virginia. Hoban instead conceived a big, three-story rectangular mansion like the Duke of Leinster’s back in Ireland. Hoban was awarded five hundred dollars in gold for his design.

Congress had authorized a federal city along the Potomac “not exceeding ten miles square” in its Residence Bill of July 1790. The President’s House was the first public building to go up in the new capital. George Washington did not serve long enough to move in. The third President, Thomas Jefferson, perhaps spoke as a jilted architect when he pronounced his presidential quarters “big enough for two emperors, one Pope, and the Grand Lama.”

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