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Friday, February 15, 2013

The White House

Perhaps not the most beautiful shot of the White House but it does give an excellent
feel for the place--a luxurious country estate in the middle of a bustling city.
If one were to make a list of the most important or the most beautiful buildings in the United States, the big, white, Georgian mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, would be near the top of either list. I've been there three times, the first in 1963 when it was the home of Camelot and the Kennedy's. The second time was some five years later when the Kennedy nemesis, Richard Nixon occupied the place, and then again, a year or so later with my wife-to-be. Back then all one had to do was line up at the East Wing and you where literally home free. Times change. So has the Executive Mansion, as it was first called back in 1792 when the cornerstone was laid by George Washington, himself (on a site he'd personally selected).

Charleston County Courthouse, 1791, James Hoban, architect.

Hoban's design entry in the competition seems to be simply a more grandiose version of his Charleston courthouse. Having won the competition, Washington influenced Hoban to employ a two-story fa├žade.
James Hoban designed the place. Hoban was an Irish architect from South Carolina at a time when American architects (of any caliber) were as rare as the proverbial hen's teeth. Washington probably met Hoban during a southern tour shortly after becoming president. Hoban's Charleston, SC, courthouse (second image) is remarkably like his submission in the design completion which Washington had a strong hand in judging (directly above). At Washington's behest, Hoban's revised design was less palatial.

Thomas Jefferson's design competition submission was influenced by Palladio's Villa Rotunda.
Latrobe's west elevation bears the hallmarks
of Jefferson as much as Latrobe.

However, the White House we know today is as much influenced by our third president as our first. Thomas Jefferson, in fact, entered (anonymously) the same design competition as Hoban with a domed design (above) not unlike his Monticello. Despite having not won the completion, as president, Jefferson commissioned Capitol architect Benjamin Latrobe to design the north and south porticoes, although neither were built until the 1820s.

Mrs. Harrison's proposed White House additions
During the late 1800s the U.S. presidency began to outgrow the White House. With the election of President Benjamin Harrison in 1888,  came his wife, Caroline, who was much displeased with what she found in moving into the historic structure. Immediately she called upon architect, Fred Owen to propose no less than three possible remedies, (1.) a whole new White House on Sixteenth Street, (2.) relatively minor additions to the residence, and (3.) extensive, three-story wings that would have forever changed the appearance of the mansion, giving it a central courtyard and a  Beaux Arts palace-like ambiance (above). Mrs. Harrison died of tuberculosis during her husbands term in office, and fortunately, her grandiose plans died with her.

1950--building a new White House inside the old.
The need, however, persisted into the new century, and when the inevitable wings sprouted, during the early 1900s, more level architectural heads at McKim, Meade, and White prevailed, maintaining very much the original, graceful appearance and proportions hammered out by Hoban, Washington, Jefferson, and Latrobe. During the Truman administration, the place was literally gutted and rebuilt from the inside out into the modern home/office we know today. With the addition of the pleasant Truman Balcony (below), which eliminated the need for ugly awnings behind the pillars of the south portico, little has changed on the outside, while inside, the White House has taken on the additional roll of a living presidential museum with portraits and artifacts of every president and his family who have ever lived well as one who never did.

President Obama enters the south entrance of  White House, March 30, 2012.


  1. I thought it was an architect named Robert Owen who designed the proposed addition? That's what all the other pages seem to say

  2. I just checked, and according to CSPAN--

    The architect Mrs. Harrison teamed up with was Fred Owen. I couldn't find my original reference but in watching the video clip that was the name mentioned.

    Thanks for writing.