James Hoban's Design for the White House

An 1880 Description and History of the White House

by Laura C. Holloway

The corner-stone of the Presidents' House was laid on the 13th of October, 1792, and the building was constructed after the designs and under the direction of Captain James Hoban, Architect. After its destruction by the British in 1814, the interior was rebuilt by Captain Hoban. It is located at the intersection of Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, and Vermont Avenues, which radiate from this point as centre.

The house is constructed of Virginia free-stone, which is excessively porous, and consequently would cause great dampness in the interior, were it not for a thick coat of white lead, which is applied about once in ten years at an enormous expense. The rock used in the construction of the foundation was quarried by Captain Samuel Smallwood (afterward mayor of Washington), on the banks of Rock Creek, from the lower or K-street bridge, as far as Lyonshouse wharf. The grounds were formerly enclosed with a high stone wall. The old sycamore trees which stand in the sidewalk on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the mansion, occupy a line running parallel with the former site of that wall. The portico on the north front was added to the building during the administration of President Jackson........

The Presidents' House is situated in the western part of the city, on a plot of ground of twenty acres; forty-four feet above high-water mark. It has a southern and a northern front; the southern sloping towards the Potomac and commanding a view of it. A semi-circular balcony extends out from the Parlors on this side and overlooks the private garden near by, and the public grounds beyond. The high basement gives the house a third story on this side. On both fronts the grounds are laid out with taste and planted with forest-trees and shrubbery. The walks are of gravel, broad and delightful.

The mansion is two stories and very lofty, one hundred and seventy feet front, and eighty-six feet deep. The northern front is ornamented with a lofty portico of four Ionic columns in front and three on either side. Beneath this portico drive the carriages of visitors; immediately opposite the front door, across the open vestibule or hall, is the Reception Room. The East Room is eighty feet long, fifty feet wide, and twenty-two high. There are four mantels of marble with Italian black, and gold fronts, and very handsome grates; each mantel is surmounted with a French mirror, the plates of which measure one hundred and fifty-eight inches, framed in splendid style. Four other large mirrors, two at each end of the room, reflect the rays from three large chandeliers, from which depend glass pendants, which glitter in the light like diamonds; each chandelier has twenty-seven burners [in all likelihood, the chandeliers burned gas].

In front of the Presidents' House in a small enclosure, is the bronze statue of Jefferson, presented to the government by Captain Levy, of the United States army, who was, at that time (1840), owner of Monticello. The statue stands on a pedestal: in his left hand Jefferson holds a scroll of the Declaration of the Independence, and in his right hand a pen, as though he had just finished that immortal instrument, and was anticipating the glorious results of its influence: the terror it would strike among the foes of freedom; the strength with which it would nerve the patriot's heart; the bitter opposition which it would meet with from some; the joy with which it would be hailed by more; and, if adopted, the high destinies which awaited Young America.

It now occupies an eligible position, and will long stand in honor alike of the great man it so faithfully represents, and of the noble spirit of patriotism that secured and presented it to the nation. It formerly stood in the Rotunda of the Capitol.

The Presidents' House, during Mr. Jefferson's administration, stood unenclosed on a piece of waste and barren ground, separated from the Capitol by an almost impassable marsh. That building was not half completed, and standing as it did amidst the rough masses of stone and other materials collected for its construction, and half hidden by the venerable oaks that still shaded their native soil, looked more like a ruin in the midst of its fallen fragments and coeval shades, than a new and rising edifice. The silence and solitude of the surrounding space were calculated to enforce this idea, for beyond the Capitol Hill as far as the eye could reach, the city as it was called, lay in a state of nature, covered with thick groves and forest-trees, wide and radiant plains with only here and there a house along the intersecting ways, that could not yet be properly called streets.

Thomas Moore visited the United States in 1804, and writes in his letters to his mother, that "the Presidents' House is encircled by a very rude pale, through which a common rustic stile introduced visitors."

The Executive Mansion was opened for the reception of visitors on the 1st of January, 1818, being the first time since the completion of repairs, subsequent to its destruction by the British.

Gas was introduced into the White House during President Polk's administration, the 29th of December, 1848.

Until President Fillmore's time there was no library. The circular room in the second story contains now a fine collection of books, many of them purchased during President Buchanan's administration. The trees on the western side of the mansion were planted by President John Quincy Adams. At various times there have been complaints made of the "palace" in which the Presidents were entertained during their terms, and not a few have been the bitter denunciations, written and spoken, "of its inappropriateness," averring that it is too fine and too large for a Republican Chief Magistrate. However, as the country has increased in population and wealth, these objections ceased to be made, and since the most interested persons say nothing now if its being too large or elegant, it is supposted that it will continue to be the Executive Mansion as long as the country remains under its present form of government. Congress has heretofore made an appropriation after the election of each new President (There was none made during President Tyler's administration.), for reparing and refurnishing the mansion. After the close of the late civil war, it was in a sad condition, having been subjected to hard usage. It was renovated, and the first floor beautifully papered and refurnished under the auspices of Mrs. Patterson, the daughter of President Johnson.

The green-house was partly burned in the winter of 1868, but is now greatly enlarged, and adds much to the beauty of the fine old mansion.

From the library-window on the second floor the view of the Potomac is very extended and magnificent. On a clear day, the distant points of Fort Washington may be dimly defined, and the old city of Georgetown distinctly seen. . . .

[The White House] cost originally three hundred thousand dollars, and was smaller at the time it was burned by the British than now. Its rebuilding, refurnishings from time to time and the additions and alterations have cost a trifle over one million seven hundred thousand dollars.

It contains thirty-one rooms, including offices, reception rooms, President's office, and library. The first floor is devoted to the public, consisting entirely of parlors, state dining-hall, and the famous East Room. The three parlors, the Red, Blue, and Green Rooms, are historic apartments well known to the people of the Republic.

The text was first published in Laura C. Holloway, The Ladies of the White House; Or, In the Home of the Presidents. Being a Complete History of the Social and Domestic Lives of the Presidents from Washignton to Hayes -- 1789-1880. Bradley & Company, Philadelphia, and R. H. Curran & Co., Boston, 1880, pp. 592-597. Illustration from Joseph Jackson, Development of American Architecture 1783-1830, David McKay Company, Philadelphia, 1926, p. 39. Illustration described as James Hoban's Design for White House, 1792, from the collection of Glen Brown, Architect. Digital editing of text and image by Sarah E. Mitchell.

Web Edition copyright © 2003 Sarah E. Mitchell