A tale of two White Houses

Chateau_de_Rastignac_France

Chateau de Rastignac, France

The South Portico of the White House bears a striking resemblance to the  façade of the Château de Rastignac (above) in south-western France. Now is this a coincidence?

Let us look at a brief chronology of these two buildings:

Late 1780s: the Marquis de Rastignac makes (now lost) plans for the construction of a new château on his estate near Bordeaux.

Spring 1789: Thomas Jefferson, then ambassador of the young United States to France, and great amateur of fine wine, tours the Bordeaux region.

Summer 1789: the onset of the French Revolution puts the Marquis de Rastignac’s building projects on indefinite hold.

1801: Jefferson is elected President of the United States. He supervises plans for the construction of the South Portico of the White House.

White_House_South_Portico

White House, South nPortico

1809: the construction of the South Portico is completed by the time Jefferson leaves office.

1812-1817: the Marquis de Rastignac belatedly builds his château.

1814: British troops set the White House ablaze during the War of 1812.

1824: The White House is rebuilt without major architectural changes.

So what happened here? We have three possibilities:

First, the resemblance between the South Portico and the Château de Rastignac could be a coincidence.

Second, Jefferson could have seen the plans of the future Château de Rastignac during his 1789 Bordeaux visit, and remembered them once he was President.

Or the Marquis de Rastignac could have seen a picture of the White House after it was completed in 1809 and before it was destroyed by the 1814 blaze, and used it as an inspiration for his château.

Certainly the South Portico follows the Palladian style, so popular with the 18th century Bordeaux aristocracy. And Jefferson was much influenced, at Monticello and in Washington, by the architecture and art he had admired in France. But, unless the original plans for the Chateau de Rastignac are somehow recovered, we may never know for sure…

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