Inside the 18th-century contest to build the White House

In 1792, leading architects entered a competition to build the President's House, George Washington judged it, and the winner built an American icon.

Architect James Hoban (right) and President George Washington (left) supervise construction on the President’s House in this 1932 painting by N. C. Wyeth.
Photograph by THE WHITE HOUSE HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION

It may seem like Washington, D.C. was the perfect spot for the U.S. captial, but its selection was controversial. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and others wanted the capital to be located in a northern commercial center. Southern leaders proposed that the federal city be built in an agricultural region to avoid concentrating financial and political power. Businessmen in Philadelphia and New York sought to lure the president by building great residences for him, but George Washington selected a site currently located between Virginia and Maryland on the Potomac River. He believed that the location would be the seed for a great capital city, the equal of Paris or London.

Congress authorized the location of this new capital in the 1790 Residence Act, which required that by the year 1800 the federal government—the president, Congress, and the Supreme Court—relocate from its current location in Philadelphia to the city that would be named Washington. At that time, there were to be two public buildings ready for occupancy, a “House for the President” and a “House for the Congress.” The president commissioned French-born architect and engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who had fought on the side of the Americans in the Revolution, to design the capital city, the U.S. Capitol, and the President’s House. (Learn about the White House's other occupants: Bees.)

In L’Enfant’s city plan, both the President’s House and the Capitol were to be located at the cardinal points of the city. His original plan proposed that the executive mansion be four times larger than the house that would eventually be built. It would be built on a ridge with a beautiful view overlooking the Potomac toward Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home.

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