Which came first – the White House or its French lookalike?
Jane Hanks explores the strong resemblance between Château de Rastignac in the Dordogne and the iconic White House in Washington DC
If you drive along the N89 in the Dordogne towards Périgueux, you will be struck by the similarity of the Château de Rastignac, built on a hill facing the road, to the White House in Washington DC.
Both were built during the same period in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and their exteriors are so similar that there has been a long-running debate over which might have influenced the other, or if their resemblance is purely coincidental.
They are more than 6,200 kilometres apart, but during the time of the French Revolution and just afterwards, there were connections between America and France.
Thomas Jefferson was ambassador to France before he became the third US president from 1801 to 1809.
The Château de Rastignac, outside the village of La Bachellerie, is deep in the French countryside, but its ex-owners had contacts in the highest levels of society.
It was bought in 2000 by seven families, who restored the severely damaged building and turned it into separate apartments.
One of the couples, Ronald and Maria Kerkhoven, live there permanently. Dr Kerkhoven, an anthropologist and art historian, has spent years researching the history of this remarkable building.
He gave me a guided tour: “The exterior and the magnificent entrance hall are Monument Historique classé, which gives it the highest level of protection.
“The interior of the apartments is not because it was destroyed by German troops during World War Two.The first element to note is that the entrance is from the side and not up a grand avenue to the front. This is because this was a new era where culture and nature were more important than a show of power and wealth as in earlier buildings."
“It was built in the neo-classical style, influenced by Palladian Italian architecture. The grand entrance hall with its stone pillars is an exact copy of the kind of bath house to be seen in the ruins of Pompeii, and we have a pre-war photo showing there was indeed a small rectangular pool.”
'Oval rooms are a feature of this style of architecture'
From the hall, we entered a large room which, astonishingly, is oval: “In the White House there are two oval rooms. One is in the main building and is a reception room, and the Oval Office itself is in an adjoining building. Oval rooms are a feature of this style of architecture.”
We then stepped out on to the balcony, and its impressive and stunning semicircular portico supported by six monumental pillars, around 16m high. It is just like the southern façade of the White House in Washington DC, though the building housing the president is larger.
“There are several stories that link the two buildings, but no actual proof,” Dr Kerkhoven said. “One tale relates Thomas Jefferson visited the School of Architecture in Bordeaux in 1789 and viewed the plans for Rastignac there, but there is no official document backing this up.
“The Marquis Chapt de Rastignac was connected by marriage to the powerful de La Rochefoucauld family, which had links with Jefferson, so it is possible Jefferson heard talk about the new, modern building planned for Rastignac.
“I am also researching the possibility that the Rastignac family, and perhaps the chateau, are mentioned in a letter written by Mirabeau, a nobleman who was one of the key figures in the Revolution.
“This could give us crucial evidence.” The original plans for Rastignac have disappeared, so its date and its architect are unknown.
It is thought the design was drawn up before the Revolution but building was delayed by the troubles so it was not finished until around 1815, the date engraved into the oval cellar ceiling. It is thought the architect was Mathurin Blanchard, also known as Salat.
We know a lot more about the White House. It was designed by Irish-born James Hoban, who modelled it on Leinster House in Dublin. It was begun in 1792 and President John Adams moved in in 1800. In 1801, it was Thomas Jefferson’s turn to live there and he, with architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, added to the building.
In 1814, the British army destroyed much of the White House during the war with the United States, and it was afterwards that the semi-circular portico was added.
Jefferson was no longer president but perhaps he influenced the later addition, remembering the plans he saw for the chateau in France?
Dr Kerkhoven says it does not matter if there is a connection between the two: “They are remarkable buildings, conceived when the rules of architecture were changing to reflect a new, modern age.”
Another mystery surrounds the chateau
During the war, part of the collection of major Parisian gallery Bernheim-Jeune was hidden inside.
There were 33 important works of impressionist art, including one remarkable Van Gogh, seven Cézannes, five Renoirs, four Manets, one Matisse, and three Toulouse-Lautrecs, plus works by Sisley, Vuillard, Bonnard, Odilon Redon and Berthe Morisot. Did the German SS soldiers who set the building on fire in 1944 know about them?
Did they take them and, if so, does someone still have them?
Dr Kerkhoven thinks it unlikely: “The soldiers knew they had lost the war and were bent on causing as much destruction as they could and I don’t think they would have known about the paintings.
“It was 75 years ago and there has been no mention of them being in existence in all that time. Sadly, I think these works were burnt in the fire and lost forever.”
Restoration of the chateau has taken a huge amount of energy and money and is still continuing: “Living in a chateau is quite an undertaking and often a burden. Imagine spending the winter in large rooms with 4m60-high ceilings.
“But it has been a fine adventure and we love our life in France and are rewarded by being able to step out on to such a superb balcony with views over the countryside.”
The Château de Rastignac is not open to the public, but occasionally opens its doors for the Journées du Patrimoine or concerts, organised by the Kerkhovens.