In 1790, the United States Congress decided that a new capital city should be built to accommodate the new federal government. Virginia and Maryland offered land along the Potomac River, but there were no buildings on the site. President George Washington took a personal interest in the planning for the Capital and the President’s House—the place where all future chief executives would live.
After firing the first architect hired to construct the house, Washington agreed to hold a contest for the best design. Ads in the major newspapers stated the requirements for the President’s home and promised payment of $500 to the winner. Though no architecture schools existed in America yet, the design of James Hoban, an Irish immigrant who already designed state buildings in South Carolina, caught Washington’s attention. The design called for a three- story house with stone columns in the front. Other features included large windows and high ceilings.
Washington wanted the home to be grand enough for European rulers to admire it, and he thought Hoban’s plan met that requirement. The President also believed the United States would become a great country, and its leader needed a house that could grow with the increasing power of the nation. “It was always my idea, that the building should be so arranged that only a part of it should be erected for the present, and…to admit of an addition in the future as circumstances might render proper,” Washington later wrote. Hoban’s box-like design with wings that could be expanded later was a perfect match.
Though Washington put Hoban in charge of the construction site, he remained so involved with the project that Hoban never made any changes without consulting him. One design element Washington insisted on was that the exterior of the house be made of stone. Though Hoban found just enough stone for a scaled down, two-story version of the original plan at Aquia Creek in Virginia, one problem remained. The sandstone from the creek absorbed water easily, which caused the stone to weaken. Hoban ordered his workers to apply a thick coat of white paint to the exterior walls. As work continued, people living in the area referred to the building as the White House—a nickname that eventually stuck.
By 1796, workers completed the interior walls of the White House. Stonemasons brought in from Scotland hand-carved flowers, medallions, and other decorations around the entrance and windows. Two years later, a roof was added.
The year 1800 was the deadline for the project’s completion. By then, John Adams was President and he moved in with his wife. Despite the grand exterior, the thirty inner rooms of the house were not complete. Abigail Adams wrote “Not one room or chamber is finished of the whole. It is habitable by fires in every part, thirteen of which we are obliged to keep daily, or sleep in wet and damp places.” In a few months, the Adams’ moved out when Thomas Jefferson became President. He and the next occupant, James Madison, made the inner rooms of the White House more comfortable.
Unfortunately, during the War of 1812 British soldiers burned the White House and everything inside was destroyed. A rainstorm helped preserve the exterior of the house, however. James Hoban was summoned to help with the rebuilding process so that the White House would look almost the same as when it was first constructed.