Blog post

What the White House could have looked like

The story of George Washington and the competition to design the residence of the President of the United States

by
G. John Cole (opens in new window)

The White House in Washington, D.C. is one of the world's best known buildings – close your eyes for a moment and you can probably picture it well. But it could easily have looked very different. In this guest post by HouseFresh and the Maryland Center for History and Culture, using archival documents and digital renders, we discover the White Houses that might have been.

In 1792, George Washington held a competition to design a house for the president. Irish-born winning architect James Hoban built the neoclassical mansion that would soon become known as the White House – and today its image is seared into our collective imagination.

The president personally considered at least six designs, but the runners-up were immediately consigned to history. Many of the original drawings are archived at the Maryland Center for History and Culture and these alternative visions of the White House have now been recreated in a new set of digital renders. For the first time ever you can see what the White House could have looked like had a different competition entry been selected.

Vivien Barnett, Curatorial Assistant at the The Maryland Center for History and Culture, gave us some insight into what it takes to preserve these plans:

“The plans are currently housed in custom-made archival storage mounts. We use acid-free archival boards to sandwich each drawing, and most have a custom cut mat that provides a window into the mount so the object is still accessible in storage. Many are also covered with a sheet of mylar or acid-free tissue to provide further protection. Aside from that, they are stored in a closed flat-file unit in a temperature-controlled room.”

Out of the archive and realistically computer-generated, here are five visions of the White House that might have been.

Jefferson’s Plan for the White House

Jefferson’s Plan. ID 1976.88.6, RS2348_1976.88.6, 1976.88.8, RS8387_1976-88-9, RS8388_1976-88-10. Courtesy of the Maryland Center for History and Culture. mdhistory.org

Thomas Jefferson was Secretary of State at this time, and closely involved with the administration of the competition. But he was also an architect and enthusiast of classical European design. Experts attribute a losing entry labelled 'Abraham Faws' to Jefferson. The ‘real’ Faws submitted his own, amateurish entry, and Jefferson’s anonymous design was later attributed to Faws due to a clerical error.

Jefferson would move into the White House as president in 1801, describing the mansion as “big enough for two emperors, one Pope and the grand Lama.” All the same, he couldn’t help himself but expand on it, adding colonnades and other features to shape the White House as it now looks.

Philip Hart’s Plan

The competition to design the White House was part of a broader challenge to suggest architecture for Washington’s seat of power. Phillip Hart was an amateur architect – more likely a professional builder – who submitted proposals for both the president’s house and the Capitol.

Hart’s White House echoes his vaguely absurd Capitol sketches. The foreshortened top floor and faux-Renaissance style lacks the style and sophistication that Washington desired from a building that should, “in size, form, and elegance… look beyond the present day.

Andrew Mayfield’s Plan

Andrew Mayfield Carshores was a linguist and former British soldier and teacher. His simple design reflects pre-Revolutionary War architecture, characterized by America’s colonial period of Georgian, English-style buildings.

Carshore’s steeply-pitched roofs are bordered with a lead walkway, with a rainwater reservoir in the roof of the main block. But to the judges, his work lacked a vital spark. According to architectural historian Hugh Howard, Carshore was a ‘gentleman amateur’ and his rejected entry may be the only building he ever designed.

Jacob Small’s Plan

Jacob Small submitted four entries to the 1792 contest. Author Patrick Phillips-Shrock highlights that Small’s White House designs were thought to be inspired by two iconic buildings from that time: Mount Vernon, George Washington’s plantation estate house, and the Maryland State House in Annapolis.

Small connects the stable and kitchen blocks to the main house via arcades. But his maze-like interior of hallways and mysterious staircases would have been awkward for the president. Curiously, Small did anticipate oval-shaped rooms for the White House – but he failed to integrate them into his broader design in any meaningful way.

James Diamond’s Plan

Originally from Ireland, James Diamond was an architect and builder. Diamond’s White House is set around a rectangular court. However, Diamond notes on his design that “the Open Court may be changed to a Picture Gallery and Lighted from the Top, which would have a grand Effect.”

Diamond’s design incorporates sophisticated design elements like Ionic columns and window frames capped with pediments. But the staircases are positioned inconveniently far from the entrance, and the overall grandness is thought to have been too ornate for George Washington’s tastes.

Insight into early American Architectural Imaginings

The contest to design the White House reflects democracy in America as it would evolve: the opportunity was open to everybody, but the prize went to a man whom the president already knew.

However, Hoban’s architectural proposal answered Washington’s requirements – and today, despite the additions and refinements over the years, it is hard to imagine the president’s house any other way. In fact, Hoban’s neoclassical structure would come to typify America’s federal architectural style. But HouseFresh’s digital renders of these archive blueprints are designed to help you picture how things could have been.

METHODOLOGY & SOURCES

All original plans are provided courtesy of the Maryland Center for History and Culture.

Phillips-Shrock, Patrick. (2013) The White House: An Illustrated Architectural History. North Carolina Mcfarland & Co, Inc.

William, C. Allen. (2005) History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design. Construction, and Politics. Washington. US Government Printing Office

Stillman, J. (2005) Six Houses for the President. USA. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Perezmonzon, J. (2021) Five Images of How the United States Capital Could Be. jjperezmonzon.com

Johan, D. (2020) How the US Capitol’s Design Was Chosen by Public Competition. history.howstuffworks.com

A version of this article was originally published on HouseFresh.com