James Hoban was raised on an estate belonging to the Earl of Desart in Cuffesgrange, near Callan, County Kilkenny. He worked there as a wheelwright and carpenter until his early twenties, when he was given an 'advanced student' place in the Dublin Society's Drawing School on Lower Grafton Street. He studied under Thomas Ivory.
He excelled in his studies and received the prestigious Duke of Leinster's medal for drawings of "Brackets, Stairs, and Roofs." from the Dublin Society in 1780. Later, Hoban found a position as an apprentice to Ivory, from 1779 to 1785.
Hoban was in South Carolina by April 1787, where he designed numerous buildings including the Charleston County Courthouse (1790–92), built on the ruins of the former South Carolina Statehouse (1753, burned 1788). President Washington admired Hoban's work on his Southern Tour, may have met with him in Charleston in May 1791, and summoned the architect to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (the temporary national capital) in June 1792.
In July 1792, Hoban was named winner of the design competition for the White House. His initial design seems to have had a 3-story facade, nine bays across (like the Charleston courthouse). Under Washington's influence, Hoban amended this to a 2-story facade, 11 bays across, and, at Washington's insistence, the whole presidential mansion was faced with stone. It is unclear whether any of Hoban's surviving drawings are actually from the competition.
Hoban was also one of the supervising architects who served on the Capitol, carrying out the design of Dr. William Thornton.
Hoban lived the rest of his life in Washington, D.C., where he worked on other public buildings and government projects, including roads and bridges. He also designed Rossenarra House near the village of Kilmoganny in Kilkenny, Ireland in 1824.
Hoban's wife Susanna Sewall was the daughter of the prominent Georgetown "City Tavern" proprietor.
Hoban was also involved in the development of Catholic institutions in the city, including Georgetown University (where his son was a member of the Jesuit community), St. Patrick's Parish, and the Visitation Convent founded by another Kilkenny native, Teresa Lalor of Ballyragget.
Hoban died in Washington, D.C. on December 8, 1831. He is buried at the historic Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Little has been published to catalogue Hoban's architectural work. Considering his stature as the architect of the White House, the number of his landmark buildings that have been lost is surprising.
The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C. - (1792–1800). Following the 1814 burning of the White House, Hoban rebuilt the Southern Portico for President James Monroe (1824), and the Northern Portico for President Andrew Jackson (1829).
"Prospect Hill" (Ephraim Baynard mansion), Prospect Hill Plantation, 2695 Laurel Hill Road, Edisto Island, SC 29438 - circa 1790. (Attributed to Hoban.)
First Bank of the United States, Third Street, between Chestnut and Walnut Streets, Philadelphia, PA - 1795. (Samuel Blodgett is the credited designer, but some attribute it to James Hoban.)
McCleery House, 1068 Thirtieth St. NW, Georgetown, Washington, DC, circa l800. (With many fine significant interior details, reportedly designed by James Hoban.)
The William Seabrook House, Edisto Island, SC - completed 1810. (Attributed to Hoban.)
Belcamp house - Belcamp College, Malahide road, Dublin 17, Built complete with "oval office" . The college was Established around it in 1893 as a juniorate for the Oblate Fathers, It was built onto the original house but the house still stands intact today. A mini White House, and an overlooked piece of history.
Blodget's Union Public Hotel (AKA Blodget's Lottery Hotel), site of the first General Post Office of the United States, northeast corner of 8th and E Streets, Washington, D.C. - 1783 (Demolished in 1856)
Wye Hall (John Paca mansion), Wye Island directly opposite Wye Plantation, Maryland - circa 1787 (Demolished 1789)
The Charleston Theatre, New and Broad Streets, Charleston, S.C. - 1792 (Demolished)
Northeast Executive Building, Fifteenth Street, near The White House (Demolished)
Market House (AKA "Marsh Market"), Pennsylvania Avenue and Seventh Street, Washington, D.C. - 1801 (Demolished)
St. Patrick’s Church, Corner of 14th and H Streets, NW, Washington, D.C. (Demolished. Now the site of the old Grand Lodge building)
St Mary's Chapel (AKA Barry's Chapel), Roman Catholic parish church, 10th and F Streets, Washington, D.C. - 1806 (Demolished; its cornerstone was saved, and is now inserted in the outer wall of the Holy Name Chapel, the Church of St. Dominic.)
Numerous events were held around 2008 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of his birth.
In 2008, a memorial arbor to honor James Hoban was completed near his birthplace, and a major exhibition on his life took take place at the White House Visitor Center.
Dublin Made Him..., a one day colloquium in honour of Hoban, took place on October 3, 2008, at the (RDS) in Dublin, Ireland. It was presented by the RDS in association with the White House Historical Association, the U.S. Embassy in Ireland, and the James Hoban Societies of the U.S. and Ireland.
The Irish-American group Solas have a song "John Riordan's Heels/The Bath Jig/Hoban's White House" on their album For Love and Laughter. Group member Mick McAuley, like Hoban, is from Kilkenny, and named the song in Hoban's honor.