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Sunday, February 17, 2008

White House Architect and Freemason James Hoban

The White House Historical Association and the United States Capitol Historical Society are commemorating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Freemason James Hoban with a free symposium. The Irish-born Hoban, born in County Kilkenney and trained in Dublin, was selected to design the President’s House in 1792. Presentations will examine Hoban as federal architect and local civic and church leader; Irish artisans in early 19th-century Washington; and residential styles and construction in the nation’s capital, 1790–1830.

THURSDAY, MARCH 13, 2008, 8:30 AM - 4:00 PM at the Stephen Decatur House Museum in Washington DC.

While the symposium is unlikely to mention Hoban's Masonic connections, he's an important figure in the early Freemasonry of the Federal City. Hoban had based his design on Leinster House, a palace in Dublin, Ireland, but George Washington would take great interest in the details and décor of the building. In fact, it has been claimed that Washington surveyed the property and laid out the boundary stakes for the building himself.

The Masonic connection between the White House, its Irish inspiration and the Freemasons is a curious one. Built in 1745, Leinster House was originally the Dublin residence of the 20th Earl of Kildare, James Fitzgerald. The earl had married well, and was rewarded for his auspicious coupling with the title of Duke of Leinster by King George III in 1766. As it turns out, the Duke was also the founding Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Ireland. Curiously, there is a legend that the Knights Templar had been asked in 1204 to organize banking houses in Dublin from their commandery at Templemore on Ireland's southern coast. They had been invited by James Fitzgerald’s ancestor, Maurice Fitz-Gerald.

On Saturday, October 13th, 1792, a procession of Masons formed at the Fountain Inn in Georgetown and marched to the site of the excavated foundation of the new President’s House in the Federal City. Oddly enough, it was 485 years to the day that King Phillip IV had the Knights Templar arrested simultaneously all over France, marking the beginning of the excommunication and dissolving of the Templar order.

The barest outlines of roads were still being cleared through the dense forest when the Freemasons laid the cornerstone of the first federal building in town without much public fanfare. Hoban himself was an Irish Catholic and a member of Georgetown Lodge No. 9. He took part in the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone, and became the founding Master of Federal Lodge No. 15 the following year.

The cornerstone of the President’s House was placed in the southwest corner of the foundation. The traditional Masonic ceremony was used, and it was presided over by Maryland Lodge No. 9’s Master, Peter Casanave. A brass plate was placed under the stone, which read,

"This first stone of the President's House was laid the 12th day of October
1792, and in the 17th Year of the Independence of the United States of America."

George Washington, President
Thomas Johnson,
Doctor Stewart,
Daniel Carroll, Commissioners
James Hoban, Architect
Collen Williamson, Master Mason
Vivat Respublica.

Hoban would work in the Federal City for another forty years. When the British burned the President’s House in 1814, he assisted in its reconstruction. In addition, he would go on to help establish the first Catholic church in the city – St. Patrick's, in 1792 – and in 1820 served on the committee to erect St. Peter's Church on Capitol Hill. It was a curious dichotomy, since Pope Clement XII had issued an encyclical, "In Eminenti," in 1738 threatening Catholics who became Masons with excommunication.

In spite of what has been claimed elsewhere, Washington himself was not present at the cornerstone ceremony, nor did he ever live in the house. John and Abigail Adams were the first “First Couple” to inhabit the President’s House. They lived there for only four months before Thomas Jefferson took office.

The White House has seen many other additions and remodelings over the last two centuries. When Thomas Jefferson moved in, he was still jealous over his own design being snubbed by the original committee, so he sent Hoban packing to another office across town, and brought in his own favored architect, Freemason Benjamin Latrobe, to make changes. Latrobe altered the interior (including the addition of a wine cellar) and planned the addition of the north and south porticos. After the building was burned by British troops in 1814, it was James Hoban who supervised its reconstruction, faithful to Jefferson’s changes.

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