October 13: The White House That Might Have Been

2016/10/13 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1792 the cornerstone of the President’s House was laid in Washington, DC.

The President’s House was one of the two first federal structures commenced for the pop-up capital planned by Pierre-Charles L’Enfant.  It would house the Executive branch, while the Legislative and Judicial were both accommodated in the Capitol down the street.  Each was the result of an open competition, which meant anybody–seriously, anybody–could enter.  And since this was years before NCARB and AIA and degrees and diplomas and exams and secret handshakes, really–seriously, anybody who could hold a pencil–could enter these things.

Although the entries to the Capitol had a lot in common (twin wings for the houses of Congress, domes–lots of domes), proposals for the President’s House were much more varied.  George Washington himself selected the winning entry designed by James Hoban (ca. 1762-1831).  The Irish-born Hoban was trained in carpentry and drawing before he emigrated to the Colonies and commenced life as an architect in Philadelphia.  He drew inspiration from the  Kildare House (now Leinster House), which had been the home of the Royal Dublin Society, where Hoban learned how to draw.

That’s how the President’s House came to be, one more big fat boring Georgian manse.  Oh, but what might have been!  A mystery contestant, believed by some to be Thomas Jefferson (not that he ever entered other competitions, and keeping in mind that the majority of his extant drawings are on graph paper and void of wash, nor when given the chance to build his own house he never appears to have considered the Villa Rotunda as a source, but never mind–he did say he liked Palladio’s book, so that’s that), is a big domed Villa Rotunda, which would still be a striking image on the Mall.  Better yet, the entry by one James Diamond–a sketchy character called an “amateur” since there’s nothing else to call him–submitted the wonder seen above.  Clearly somebody got his hands on a folio of Florentine Renaissance engravings: a mish-mash arcade from the Loggia degli Innocenti (kinda), into which twee windows are set, form the base for a not-so-nobile piano, maybe borrowing from Roman palazzo for those windows.  The central portico bears a big gaping arched opening over which a scared little Palladian window shrinks. Balusters and cannonballs line the roof eave, but over all of that rises the great dome of Florence Cathedral, topped by a magnificent chicken, or maybe a poorly drawn Eagle, or perhaps it’s the turkey that Franklin really wanted as the national symbol.  Whatever it is, it seems to be channelling not just a little of a much lesser-known treatise by Filarete, who planted a big feathery friend on top of a pointed dome in his drawings for the imaginary city of Sforzinda.

Diamond’s proposal was a train wreck, but it would have its place: no matter what would be built later in the capital (like this and this and this, for starters), Americans would be able to take a beat, pause, and consider: is it really as bad as the President’s House?

Image: competition entry for the President’s House by James Diamond (from this source)

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