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James Hoban’s Charleston Home
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Happy St. Patrick’s Day! This is the time of year when we celebrate the feast day of Ireland’s patron saint and, at least in the United States, generally revel in all things Irish. In honor of this annual celebration, I’d like to focus the spotlight on one of Charleston’s most famous Irish residents, James Hoban, the architect of the White House who called this city home for nearly a decade, more than two centuries ago. If you’re not familiar with Hoban’s story, I think you’ll enjoy this a lot. If you’re already a fan of Hoban, then get ready for some new information about his life in Charleston.
James Hoban was born near the town of Callan, in County Kilkenny, Ireland in April 1755. His family came from rather modest means, and his early education was limited. As a teenager, Hoban was apprenticed to a carpenter at the estate of a nearby manor house (Desart Court, now demolished) in County Kilkenny. Showing great promise as a draftsman, he moved to Dublin in the late 1770s and studied drawing at the Dublin Society’s Drawing School. In 1780, the Dublin Society (later called the Royal Dublin Society) awarded him the prestigious Duke of Leinster’s medal for drawing. From that time until early 1785, Hoban was employed by his former drawing instructor, the prominent Irish architect Thomas Ivory.
In the early months of 1785, James Hoban emigrated from Ireland to Philadelphia, where in May of that year he advertised as a joiner and carpenter. At some point he moved down south to Charleston, but the exact date of his arrival in South Carolina is unclear. James Hoban was definitely residing in Charleston by 24 April 1787, when he answered a mathematical riddle posed in local newspaper a few days earlier (see Charleston Morning Post, 7 May 1787). It appears that he came to Charleston with a fellow Irish carpenter named Pierce Purcell, about whom little is known. Surviving records also demonstrate that there were a few other members of the Hoban family in Charleston, including Philip, Joseph, and a young lady named Ally Hoban, but no further biographical information about these people can now be found in Charleston.
In January 1789, James Hoban and Pierce Purcell purchased separate but adjacent building lots on the north side of Trott Street in Charleston, each lot measuring approximately 36 feet on the street and 100 feet deep. Hoban built a three-story brick residence on his lot, but Purcell’s lot may have remained undeveloped. Perhaps the two men used it as workshop space for their carpentry business. In April 1790, shortly after completing their three-story house and office, Hoban and Purcell advertised the opening of a drawing school at their residence, which they identified as No. 43 Trott Street. Here we can imagine the young Charlestonian Robert Mills (1781–1855) getting his first instruction in drawing and architectural drafting. Mills, of course, went on to have a remarkable career as an architect in South Carolina, Baltimore, and especially in Washington, D.C., where his famous Washington Monument is still an iconic national treasure. And it all started with James Hoban on Trott Street.
What sort of work did James Hoban and Pierce Purcell undertake in Charleston? Besides designing a few private residences, the two Irishmen appear to have concentrated on public buildings. The earliest project that they are alleged to have been involved with in Charleston is the restoration of the old South Carolina State House, a large, two-story brick building constructed between 1753 and 1765. The State House was gutted by fire in February 1788, leaving only a brick shell remaining. Extensive repairs to the building were made in 1788–1790, including the addition of a third story, but historians have not yet found any documents that name the contractor who supervised the work and designed the additions. A long-standing tradition credits James Hoban and Pierce Purcell for that work, but documentary confirmation of this story remains elusive. For the past two hundred years, the old State House (with its added story) has served as Charleston County’s primary courthouse. The building was again gutted and again lovingly refurbished in the decade after Hurricane Hugo (1989), and still the rumors about Hoban’s possible involvement live on (see Carl Lounsbury’s 2001 book, From State House to Court House).
In the late summer of 1790, the City of Charleston advertised its desire to receive proposals from builders for a number of extensive interior modifications to the Exchange Building, built in 1768–1771 at the intersection of Broad and East Bay Streets (see Charleston’s City Gazette, 30 July and 28 August 1790). The advertisements do not specify the purpose of these renovations, but I strongly suspect that City Council, which used part of the building as its City Hall, was making preparations for President George Washington’s upcoming visit to Charleston. Washington attended four separate events at the Exchange in early May 1791, each of which was attended by several hundred admiring Charlestonians, and the text of the 1790 advertisements suggest that City Council wanted to beautify the interior and to strengthen the joists supporting the floor of the Great Hall on the building’s upper story before the president’s arrival. As with the repairs to the State House in 1788–90, there are no surviving city records that name the contractors who undertook the modifications to the Exchange, but I’ve found one intriguing clue. According to a published account of its expenses during the period of September 1790 through August 1791, Charleston’s City Council recorded a large payment of £96.7.9 sterling to the partnership of “Hoban and Purcell” for the completion of an unnamed project (see Charleston’s City Gazette, 5 September 1791). We may never know for certain, but it’s certainly possible that the Irish contractors were responsible for preparing Charleston’s Exchange building to receive the nation’s first president and his guests.
James Hoban was residing in Charleston in May 1791 when George Washington spent eight days in the city as part of his tour of the southern states. Charleston’s civic leaders gave Washington a tour of the city’s most prestigious buildings, and, according to a report in the Charleston City Gazette, 9 August 1792, “Mr. Hoban was introduced to him [President Washington, in May 1791], as a man of merit and of genius, under the patronage of General [William] Moultrie, Mr. [Pierce] Butler [South Carolina’s Irish born U.S. Senator], &c.”
In the spring of 1792, James Hoban was among several local builders who submitted plans for a large, new Charleston Orphan House, to be built on the north side of Boundary Street (now Calhoun Street), just west of King Street. The surviving records of that institution, which currently reside at CCPL, show that on 12 April the commissioners of that institution selected Thomas Bennett’s design. If Hoban was disappointed by losing this commission, the sting of defeat did not last long.
Also in the early spring of 1792, the commissioners in charge of designing the new capital city of Washington announced their desire to receive proposals for a residence befitting the nation’s chief executive, as well as a capitol building for Congress. Hoban was specifically invited to submit drawings, and he travelled from Charleston to Philadelphia to discuss architectural matters with President Washington himself. It certainly appears that Washington favored the young Irishman. On the day of the design competition review, held in Washington on 16 July 1792, the president immediately selected Hoban’s plan. In the coming months, however, the two men reviewed the plans and Washington convinced Hoban to enlarge its footprint before construction commenced.
On learning of Mr. Hoban’s achievement, the Charleston City Gazette, on 9 August 1792, proudly noted “that it is no small matter of universal satisfaction to the citizens of Carolina, that their fellow citizen, Hoban, has succeeded in this enterprize.” Just a few weeks later, the Charleston newspapers also announced that Mr. Hoban had designed a new theatre at the west end of Broad Street, and that work would soon commence under the supervision of Hoban’s old friend, Capt. Anthony Toomer, Charleston’s leading bricklayer. The Charleston Theatre opened in February 1793 at the southwest corner of Broad and New Streets. After being converted into a medical college in 1833, it was sold in 1848 and demolished shortly thereafter.
In the years after their successful summer of 1792, James Hoban and Pierce Purcell seem to have divided their time between Charleston and Washington, D.C. The cornerstone of the president’s mansion, now called the White House, was laid on 13 October 1792, though construction didn’t formally commence until April 1793. For the next several years, the Irish partners labored in Washington D.C. during the warm months and wintered in Charleston. Purcell sold his lot on Trott Street to Elisha Poinsett in early October 1794 and thereafter disappeared from Charleston records. In December 1797, Hoban assigned power of attorney to Peter Smith, an Irish “master builder” of Charleston, who in January 1798 sold Hoban’s house on Trott Street to Dr. James Lynah, a native of Dublin. It seems that forty-two year-old James Hoban, architect of national repute, bid farewell to Charleston at the end of 1797, nearly eleven years after his first arrival in the city as an obscure but talented draftsman and carpenter.
Construction of the Federal executive’s mansion took more than eight years and was not quite finished when President John Adams moved in, briefly, in November 1800. The building’s whitewashed, sandstone walls inspired the name “White House,” which was in use shortly before British forces burned the structure in August 1814, leaving only a hollow brick and stone shell standing. James Hoban drew plans for rebuilding the White House in the late 1810s, and also added the iconic south and north porticos for later presidents. Besides the White House, arguably the most famous residence in the world now, James Hoban designed a number of other public buildings and private residences in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., where he spent the rest of his life. He died in December 1831 at the age of 76 and is still remembered as a prominent figure in the early history of that community.
In recent years, a number of historians of the White House and admirers of James Hoban have come to Charleston in search of information related to the Irishman’s life and works in and around Charleston. It has been my privilege to participate in some conversations about these matters, and to lend my archival experience in the hopes of finding new information. Among the most pressing of all local Hoban questions has been location of his residence in Charleston. In the early 1790s, Hoban’s own newspaper advertisements give his address as No. 43 Trott Street. That street name was changed to Wentworth Street in early 1806, so some folks have assumed that Hoban lived at what is now called No. 43 Wentworth Street. Charleston’s street numbering system has changed radically since the 1790s, however, so the current address known as 43 Trott or 43 Wentworth has absolutely no correlation to the location of James Hoban’s residence. In order to find the modern number of that old address, one has to delve into the history of the individual properties, and of the history of the neighborhood in general.
A few weeks ago, I assembled a brief history of a place known in early Charleston as Rhettsbury, or Rhett’s Point, and later, Trott’s Point. If you read that essay, you’ll remember that the heirs of William Rhett began subdividing Rhettsbury in 1773, at which time they created a plat of the property divided into nineteen large lots. Among those was Lot No. 11, measuring approximately 450 feet on the north side of Trott Street, between East Bay Street and Anson Street, and approximately 100 feet deep from north to south. This Lot No. 11 of Rhettsbury was inherited by Mary Hasell Ancrum, whose second husband, Caleb Grainger, subdivided and sold the property after the American Revolution.
In the spring of 1784, master brick mason Anthony Toomer, acting as attorney for Caleb Grainger, sold a 70-foot-wide swath of Lot No. 11 to Capers Boone of Georgetown, South Carolina. In January 1789, Boone divided his lot into two halves and sold one each to James Hoban and Pierce Purcell on the same day. Two months later, on St. Patrick’s Day 1789, Hoban and Purcell, “carpenters” of Charleston, mortgaged their joint properties to Thomas Gadsden in order to finance their respective purchases. Property records indicate that both men satisfied this mortgage in August 1791. A few years later, both Hoban and Purcell were settling their financial affairs in Charleston. In order to help you understand the geographic clues for locating their respective properties, I’ll trace a bit of the chain-of-title for each lot.
James Hoban’s Trott Street property was sold to Dr. James Lynah in January 1798, and shortly thereafter Trott Street was officially renamed Wentworth Street. Lynah’s estate sold the property in June 1829 to William Thorne. After an equity suit, Thorne’s estate on Wentworth Street was sold Dr. Lawrence L. Cohen in January 1843. The City of Charleston’s earliest surviving property tax assessment records date from 1852, at which time Dr. L. L. Cohen still owned Hoban’s three-story brick house on the north side of Wentworth Street. In the early 1850s, Dr. Cohen’s property was called No. 6 Wentworth Street.
Pierce Purcell sold his Trott Street property to Elisha Poinsett in October 1794. His son, Joel Roberts Poinsett, sold it to Catherine Duvergie in January 1805, but in May 1811 it was sold by the sheriff to Louis Dubois. The executors of Dubois’s estate sold it to Paul Remley in May 1830. According to the city’s earliest surviving tax assessment records, Paul Remley built in 1853–54 a three-story brick residence on the vacant, unnumbered lot immediately to the east of Dr. Laurence L. Cohen, who then owned Hoban’s former house.
Between the 1780s and the early twentieth century, these lots and all the lots of urban Charleston have been renumbered multiple times. What Hoban called No. 43 Trott Street in 1790 became No. 6 Wentworth Street by 1852. This block of Wentworth Street was renumbered after the Civil War, however, and by 1888 Hoban's three-story brick building was a two-family tenement called No. 14-16 Wentworth Street. The Historic Charleston Foundation owns a 1960 photograph of Hoban's ca. 1790 house at 14-16 Wentworth, and it appears to be an impressive neoclassical edifice in good condition. (Follow this link to see for yourself: http://lcdl.library.cofc.edu/lcdl/catalog/lcdl:64488.) Unfortunately, that historically important brick structure was demolished sometime after the 1960s. Today, the site of James Hoban’s Charleston home is occupied a smaller three-story brick residence built in 1992 for Mark and Jenny Sanford, called No. 16 Wentworth Street.
So, in conclusion, James Hoban is a significant figure in the architectural history of Charleston, and of Washington, D.C., and of the United States in general. In recent years, Ireland has also embraced Hoban as a favorite son. In 2008, friends dedicated a memorial arbor near Hoban’s birthplace in County Kilkenny. Last summer I visited the new EPIC Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin, where I was pleased to discover a display devoted to Hoban that includes a handsome image of the Charleston County Courthouse as an example of the Irishman’s work leading up to the White House.
James Hoban may not be a household name in Charleston, but the experience he gained during his years in this city helped prepare and propel him onto a higher sphere of success. In terms of physical fabric, there are few tangible reminders of Hoban’s work left in Charleston. Perhaps one day I’ll find a scrap of paper in the state archive that confirms Hoban’s work on the Charleston County Historical Courthouse at the corner of Meeting and Broad Street, but for now I’m content to believe that Mr. Hoban probably helped reconstruct that building after the fire of 1788. In the meantime, however, we can always walk down toward the east end of Wentworth Street and imagine James Hoban standing over his desk there, sketching a neoclassical façade for the presidential mansion of the new nation that had become his home.