EYE ON EUROPE
OUR WHITE HOUSE...
This view is what startles so many American tourists motoring through France...
It's the Château de Rastignac, which surely was the model for our White House.
The Jefferson White House:
A knock-off of a chateau?
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
Traffic on a certain tree-lined highway in the Dordogne Valley in France often slows to a crawl in summertime. The tourists, usually Americans, are trying to catch a glimpse of what appears to be the U.S. White House perched on a hillside behind a grove of chestnut trees. Its almost a Twilight Zone moment for them.
What theyre seeing is the Château de Rastignac (1817), one of the more interesting unsolved mysteries of early Franco-American relations. Some historians believe the chateau is a replica of the White House (1802), and the dates of construction would seem to support that view. Others, including me, contend the reverse--that the chateau was the model on which Thomas Jefferson based his architectural revisions during his two terms as president, creating the modified White House as we know it today.
The two structures are too similar to have developed coincidentally. The question is who copied whom? One of the long-term pursuits of my life abroad has been an effort to understand why no one seems to have a definitive answer.
Some years ago I started my quest by driving up the shady lane to the chateau domain to seek an audience with the proprietor. He turned out to be a chatty, wizened little man who lived in a modest adjacent house of no particular interest. He greeted me warmly, listened to my spiel, and walked me over to the chateau. There he pulled out a large key, unlocked the front door and in we went.
My first shock was the realization that the building was only an empty shell, supported inside by timbers to prevent the roof and walls from collapsing. The chateau had suffered a brutal fate in 1944 as a fleeing German SS revenge squad tried to demolish it -- punishment for French Résistance in the area. In a few hours, more than 100 years of history were nearly wiped out. The grand structure was defaced and set ablaze.
They torched it with gasoline and phosphorus and the fires burned for two weeks, the proprietor told me. All furnishings and tapestries went up, leaving only the walls. It was a real tragedy. These punitive SS squads were sadistic criminals with a total lack of humanity. He had personally watched it burn.
The chateau sat abandoned in a ruined state for eight years until the French government got around to restoring it after World War II. The work required structural reinforcement, cleanup of the charred exterior and interior, repainting, and restoration of the grounds.
He firmly believed the U.S. White House was a copy of the French chateau but he could not prove it. Instead he directed me to the Société Historique et Archéologique du Périgord, which had long taken an interest in the chateaus provenance. After a talk with the permanent secretary and a study of some invoices and records signed by local artisans of the era, I could see the situation was more complicated than mere dates of completion.
Construction work on the Château de Rastignac was undertaken before the French Revolution of 1789. The project was interrupted for nearly 20 years, however, during the most turbulent period in French history--the Revolution, the Napoleonic era and the aftermath. The Marquis de Rastignac, being a hated aristocrat, had been forced to emigrate to Germany in 1791 along with hundreds of other French nobility, to escape the guillotine.
(Contrary to popular belief, the marquis was very much a real person, by birth Pierre-Jean-Julie Chapt, not the fictional Rastignac dandy created by Balzac and dramatized in the novel Père Goriot and The Human Comedy series.)
When construction began on the chateau, Thomas Jefferson was in France as ambassador promoting the newly independent United States and thanking the French for making the difference in the fight against the British. Among his sidelines a passion for architecture, and he travelled around France viewing the great edifices of the 17th and 18th centuries. An amateur architect himself, he intended to create an American school of architecture for his expanding young country, based on French examples.
Jefferson was in Bordeaux in 1789, the eve of the revolution, and is known to have visited the Bordeaux Architectural College where a copy of the French chateau plans had been filed. This would have been the occasion for a look at the drawings for the Château de Rastignac. With a small leap of faith, it is easy to imagine that these drawings inspired the future American presidents eventual additions of the south portico, the classic view of the White House as depicted on the back of the 20-dollar bill.
When Jefferson returned home later in 1789 and went on to be elected the third American president in 1801, he moved into the presidents house, then little more than a utilitarian structure whose design by James Hoban had been selected in a public competition.
As one historian writes, Jefferson never lived in a house without modifying it, and this was no exception. Early in his presidency, he set about transforming the Hoban building, giving it the graceful lines, porticos and columns that have become the most familiar symbol of the United States and a frequent backdrop for modern television pundits.
Jeffersons designs included such detail as the ratio of the diameter of the columns to their height, the secret of a truly elegant portico. His plans for the modifications were signed off in 1806 and work was completed by the end of his presidency in 1809.
Rastignac eventually returned to France and revived his project in 1812, unaware of being overtaken by work on the presidents house in Washington. His chateau was finally finished in 1817.
Lacking documentary evidence that Jeffersons architectural survey of France included an opportunity to borrow the Rastignac lines, we are left with only circumstantial evidence of architectural copying.
What is clear, however, is that the Rastignac design predates the Jeffersonian White House modifications by about 17 years. This puts Jefferson in the likely position of having redone the White House in homage to the Château de Rastignac. He left no note of thanks, but all his architectural creations, including his private residence Monticello, were based on European designs he had collected during his time abroad.
Americans travelling to France often take this side trip through Périgueux and out the Route Nationale 87 about 10 miles toward Terrason. They know they have arrived at the original White House because thats where the traffic slows. At nightfall, the ghost of Thomas Jefferson just might be roaming the domain, looking approvingly at the lines and columns of the Château de Rastignac.
©2006 by Michael Johnson. This column first posted May 10, 2006.
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