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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13 Comments to “A tale of two White Houses”

  1. Fascinating tale of the maison blanche.
    I wish Bush had known more about this, though he might have been inclined to change the facade…
    merci carolg

  2. Thanks to all for your contributions! Elisa, I didn’t know the origin of the stone. All this tells me I need to write a more complete post on this topic.

  3. Princess of Eboli says:

    I like your post, I do believed they copied from the French….:)

  4. Elisa says:

    Some of the stone used on the White House originally came from Croatia.

  5. Then the South Portico would have been built, not only rebuilt, in 1824, AFTER the completion of Rastignac in 1817… But JM and/or Monroe might have seen its plans decades before it was built.
    Thanks so much for all the information!

  6. Michael Marshall says:

    Madison rebuit the White House almost immediately after the Brits burned the place.

    Probably a more complete explanation would include President Monroe. The South Portico was constructed in 1824 by then President Monroe. Monroe also serverd as minister to France immediately after Jefferson, with his most notable event being the LA Purchase.

    Monroe and J. Marshall were life long friends. As children they attended (briefly) the Campbell school in Fauquier County, VA (the same school George Washington and Thomas Marshall attended together). During the Revolution, they shared a cabin during the winter at Valley Forge. As adults, they build retreat homes next door to each at the White Sulfur Springs Resort. Both men loved good wines with Madeira being their favorite…also Washington’s. Monroe’s time as President was known as “The Era of Good Feeling” in large part due to the close relationship between the President and Chief Justice.

    I can clearly imagine a scene with Monroe and Marshall sitting out on the s. lawn drinking wine recalling their days in France. The conversation could have easily shifted to the need for a portico at the White House to better enjoy evenings on the lawn recalling the fine Portico at the Château de Rastignac.

  7. An alternative theory proposed by Michael Marshall:
    “John Marshall was on a special mission to France in 1798 to negotiate a peace. JM loved good wine and visited SW France himself. BTW, in the early 1800s the best wine in DC taverns was always referred to as “The Supreme Court” quality. JM bought it by the pipe.
    Anyway, as the leading Federalist in the 6th Congress and close associate of Washington, he had a direct role over seeing the construciton of the capital. In 1800 he became Adams Sec. of State. This duty included overseeing the construction of the Capital in DC, including the White House. After it was burned by the British, President Madison rebuilt it as it was.”
    So the link would be John Marshall, not Jefferson… What do you think?

  8. sean says:

    ben franklin, jefferson, adams, all spent a long time in france. clearly thefounding fathers were influenced by the class they saw in france. the white house is a unique work of art but that portico was borrowed from the cheateu there is no shame in that. after all it waz france that helped america to get independence. france was superpower when america was a colony. but now america is the greatest nation in the world, by any & every measure.

  9. David says:

    It does seem unlikely that James Hoban allowed his design to be influenced by Jefferson – in his designs he is stubborn much to the annoyance of the executive. Still, an interesting coincidence, I’ve been fortunate to visit both houses and can gawk at Leinster House out my apartment window.

  10. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Amanda! I had the idea for this post at the back of my mind for a long time, and suddenly it popped back to life for Election Day.

  11. Amanda says:

    What an interesting post! Thank you :)

  12. Catherine Delors says:

    Indeed, Richard! I have seen pictures of Leinster House in Dublin, and noticed the similarities you mention between it and the North side of the White House.

  13. Richard says:

    Interesting article. While jefferson is not a hero of mine, the Whitehouse and Château de Rastignac do have ammazing similarities. It is quite concievable that Jeffereson copied the Executive Mansion. Incidently Montecello’s Northeast Portico and the North Portico of the White house are almost identical.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:White_House_South_Side_Comparison.jpg

    http://www.worldofstock.com/closeups/AOB2922.php

    It has been stated as well that the Leinster House in Dublin is also a model.

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