Hoban is a Roman Catholic raised on the Desart Court estate belonging to the Earl of Desart near Callan, County Kilkenny. He works there as a wheelwright and carpenter until his early twenties, when he is given an “advanced student” place in the Dublin Society‘s Drawing School on Lower Grafton Street. He studies under Thomas Ivory. He excels in his studies and receives the prestigious Duke of Leinster‘s medal for drawings of “Brackets, Stairs, and Roofs” from the Dublin Society in 1780. He is an apprentice to Ivory, from 1779 to 1785.
Hoban is in South Carolina by April 1787, where he designs numerous buildings including the Charleston County Courthouse (1790–92), built on the ruins of the former South Carolina Statehouse, which was burned in 1788. President George Washington admires Hoban’s work on his Southern Tour and may have met with him in Charleston in May 1791. Washington summons the architect to Philadelphia, the temporary national capital, in June 1792.
In July 1792, Hoban is named winner of the design competition for the White House. His initial design has a 3-story facade, nine bays across, like the Charleston courthouse. Under Washington’s influence, he amends this to a 2-story facade, eleven bays across, and, at Washington’s insistence, the whole presidential mansion is faced with stone. It is unclear whether any of Hoban’s surviving drawings are actually from the competition.
It is known that Hoban owns at least three slaves who are employed as carpenters in the construction of the White House. Their names are recorded as “Ben, Daniel, and Peter” and appear in a James Hoban slave payroll.
Hoban is also one of the supervising architects who serves on the United States Capitol, carrying out the design of Dr. William Thornton, as well as with The Octagon House. He lives the rest of his life in Washington, D.C., where he works on other public buildings and government projects, including roads and bridges.
Hoban’s wife, Susanna “Susan” Sewall, is the sister of the prominent Georgetown City Tavern proprietor, Clement Sewall, who enlists as a sergeant at age 19 in the Maryland Line during the Revolutionary War, is promoted six months later to ensign and then severely wounded at the Battle of Germantown.
After the District of Columbia is granted limited home rule in 1802, Hoban serves on the twelve-member city council for most of the remainder of his life, except during the years he is rebuilding the White House. He is also involved in the development of Catholic institutions in the city, including Georgetown University, St. Patrick’s Parish, and the Georgetown Visitation Monastery founded by another Kilkenny native, Teresa Lalor of Ballyragget.
Hoban dies in Washington, D.C., on December 8, 1831. He is originally buried at Holmead’s Burying Ground, but is disinterred and reburied at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C. His son, James Hoban, Jr., said to closely resemble his father, serves as district attorney of the District of Columbia.
(Pictured: Portrait of James Hoban, Irish architect, wax bas-relief on glass, attributed to John Christian Rauschner, circa 1800)