You might think that you are dreaming as you drive down the A89 highway through Dordogne. Far in the distance, between the trees, an oval-shaped portico, six ionic columns, and two curved staircases appear. Could it be the renowned south portico of the White House? In fact, it is the northeast façade of the Château de Rastignac, which bears a striking resemblance to the American monument. The château’s construction lasted from 1811 to 1817, long after the “President’s House,” which was built from 1792 onwards. However, the famed rotunda on the south side was only added in 1824, as a fire during the Anglo-American War in 1814 saw the White House rebuilt and expanded.
So which one is the replica? Dutch art historian and anthropologist Ronald Kerkhoven, who has co-owned the Château de Rastignac since 2000, cannot say for sure. “While the construction of the White House was documented stone by stone, Rastignac’s is not nearly as well known,” he says. The plans for the château, built in the Louis XVI style, were probably drawn up between 1780 and 1785 but have since been lost. As for the architect, the name Mathurin Salat frequently crops up – although without any real proof.
In 1792, Irish architect James Hoban won a call for bids for the design of the presidential manor in the city of Washington, which had been founded just one year before. For the north façade on Pennsylvania Avenue, he drew inspiration from the former residence of the Duke of Leinster in Dublin, where the Irish parliament sits today. For the south façade, he created an elliptical portico with six columns flanked by two staircases. These distinctly neoclassical features were on the original plans from 1792, but were only added later.
Thomas Jefferson, the ambassador to France, might have seen the plans for the future Château de Rastignac while visiting the Bordeaux school of architecture in 1789. He might then have mentioned it to James Hoban. After all, the third president of the United States was an architecture enthusiast, and was inspired by the Hôtel de Salm in Paris – the current headquarters of the Légion d’Honneur – to create his Monticello residence. “This is a popular theory, but it has never been proved,” says Ronald Kerkhoven. “And without any evidence, we can only state that the two buildings share a certain style, inspired by the Greco-Roman and Palladian architecture movements that were booming in Europe at the time.”