Following his April 1789 inauguration, President George Washington occupied two private houses in New York City as the executive mansion. He lived at the first, known as the Franklin House and owned by Treasury Commissioner Samuel Osgood, at 3 Cherry Street through late February 1790. The executive mansion moved to the larger quarters of the Alexander Macomb House at 39–41 Broadway  where he stayed, with his wife and a small staff until August 1790. In May 1790, New York began construction of a "proper" house for the presidential mansion, Government House. Washington never used the mansion because it was not completed until after the national capital was moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in December 1790.
The July 1790 Residence Act designated the capital be permanently located in the new Federal District, and temporarily in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for ten years while the permanent capital was built. Philadelphia rented the mansion of the wealthy merchange Robert Morris at 190 High Street (now 524–30 Market Street) as the President's House, which Washington occupied from November 1790 to March 1797. Since the house was too small to accommodate the thirty people that made up the presidential family, staff, and servants, Washington had it enlarged. These alterations may have influenced the design of the White House. As part of a futile effort to have Philadelphia named the permanent national capital, Pennsylvania built a much grander presidential mansion several blocks away, but Washington declined to occupy it.
President John Adams also occupied the Market Street mansion from March 1797 to May 1800. On Saturday, November 1, 1800, he became the first president to occupy the White House. The President's House in Philadelphia became a hotel and was demolished in 1832, while the unused presidential mansion became home to the University of Pennsylvania.
First Presidential Mansion: Samuel Osgood House, Manhattan, New York. Occupied by Washington: April 1789 – February 1790.
Second Presidential Mansion: Alexander Macomb House, Manhattan, New York. Occupied by Washington: February–August 1790.
Third Presidential Mansion: President's House, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Occupied by Washington: November 1790 – March 1797. Occupied by Adams: March 1797 – May 1800.
Government House, Manhattan, New York (1790–1791). Built to be the permanent presidential mansion, Congress moved the national capital to Philadelphia before its completion.
House intended for the President, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1790s). Built to be the permanent presidential mansion, neither Washington nor Adams would occupy it.
A 1793 elevation
by James Hoban
. His 3-story, 9-bay original submission was altered into this 2-story, 11-bay design.
The President's House was a major feature of Pierre (Peter) Charles L'Enfant's' plan for the newly established federal city, Washington, D.C. (see: L'Enfant Plan). The architect of the White House was chosen in a design competition which received nine proposals, including one submitted anonymously by Thomas Jefferson.
President Washington visited Charleston, South Carolina in May 1791 on his "Southern Tour", and saw the under-construction Charleston County Courthouse designed by Irish architect James Hoban. He is reputed to have met with Hoban then. The following year, he summoned the architect to Philadelphia and met with him in June 1792.
On July 16, 1792, the president met with the commissioners of the federal city to make his judgment in the architectural competition. His review is recorded as being brief, and he quickly selected Hoban's submission.
The building has classical inspiration sources, that could be found directly or indirectly in the Roman architect Vitruvius or in Andrea Palladio styles; Palladio being an Italian architect of the Renaissance which had a considerable influence on the Western architecture (Palladian architecture). The building Hoban designed is verifiably influenced by the upper floors of Leinster House, in Dublin, which later became the seat of the Oireachtas (the Irish parliament). Several other Georgian-era Irish country houses have been suggested as sources of inspiration for the overall floor plan, details like the bow-fronted south front, and interior details like the former niches in the present Blue Room. These influences, though undocumented, are cited in the official White House guide, and in White House Historical Association publications. The first official White House guide, published in 1962, suggested a link between Hoban's design for the South Portico and Château de Rastignac, a neoclassical country house located in La Bachellerie in the Dordogne region of France and designed by Mathurin Salat. Construction on the French house was initially started before 1789, interrupted by the French Revolution for twenty years and then finally built 1812–1817 (based on Salat's pre-1789 design). The theoretical link between the two houses has been criticized because Hoban did not visit France. Supporters of a connection posit that Thomas Jefferson, during his tour of Bordeaux in 1789, viewed Salat's architectural drawings (which were on-file at the College) at the École Spéciale d'Architecture (Bordeaux Architectural College). On his return to the U.S. he then shared the influence with Washington, Hoban, Monroe, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe.
Construction of the White House began with the laying of the cornerstone on October 13, 1792, although there was no formal ceremony. The main residence, as well as foundations of the house, were built largely by enslaved and free African-American laborers, as well as employed Europeans. Much of the other work on the house was performed by immigrants, many not yet with citizenship. The sandstone walls were erected by Scottish immigrants, employed by Hoban, as were the high-relief rose and garland decorations above the north entrance and the "fish scale" pattern beneath the pediments of the window hoods. There are conflicting claims as to where the sandstone used in the construction of the White House originated. Some reports suggest sandstone from the Croatian island of Brač (specifically the Pučišća querry whose stone was used to build the ancient Roman palace of Emperor Diocletian) was used in the original construction of the building, contrarily researchers believe limestone from the island was used in the 1902 renovations and not the original construction. Others suggest the original sandstone simply came from Aquia Creek in Stafford County, Virginia, as importing the stone would be too costly. The initial construction took place over a period of eight years, at a reported cost of $232,371.83 (equal to $3,500,613 today). Although not yet completed, the White House was ready for occupancy circa November 1, 1800.
Shortages, including material and labor, forced alterations to the earlier plan developed by French engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant for a "palace" that was five times larger than the house that was eventually built. The finished structure contained only two main floors instead of the planned three, and a less costly brick served as a lining for the stone façades. When construction was finished, the porous sandstone walls were whitewashed with a mixture of lime, rice glue, casein, and lead, giving the house its familiar color and name.
Several replicas of the White House have been constructed.
The north front is the principal façade of the White House and consists of three floors and eleven bays. The ground floor is hidden by a raised carriage ramp and parapet, thus the façade appears to be of two floors. The central three bays are behind a prostyle portico (this was a later addition to the house, built circa 1830) serving, thanks to the carriage ramp, as a porte cochere. The windows of the four bays flanking the portico, at first-floor level, have alternating pointed and segmented pediments, while at second-floor level the pediments are flat. The principal entrance at the center of the portico is surmounted by a lunette fanlight. Above the entrance is a sculpted floral festoon. The roofline is hidden by a balustraded parapet.
The mansion's southern façade is a combination of the Palladian and neoclassical styles of architecture. It is of three floors, all visible. The ground floor is rusticated in the Palladian fashion. At the center of the façade is a neoclassical projecting bow of three bays. The bow is flanked by five bays, the windows of which, as on the north façade, have alternating segmented and pointed pediments at first-floor level. The bow has a ground floor double staircase leading to an Ionic colonnaded loggia (with the Truman Balcony at second-floor level), known as the south portico. The more modern third floor is hidden by a balustraded parapet and plays no part in the composition of the façade.
The building was originally variously referred to as the "President's Palace", "Presidential Mansion", or "President's House". The earliest evidence of the public calling it the "White House" was recorded in 1811. A myth emerged that during the rebuilding of the structure after the Burning of Washington, white paint was applied to mask the burn damage it had suffered, giving the building its namesake hue. The name "Executive Mansion" was used in official contexts until President Theodore Roosevelt established the formal name by having "White House–Washington" engraved on the stationery in 1901. The current letterhead wording and arrangement "The White House" with the word "Washington" centered beneath goes back to the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Although the structure was not completed until some years after the presidency of George Washington, there is speculation that the name of the traditional residence of the president of the United States may have derived from Martha Washington's home, White House Plantation in Virginia, where the nation's first president had courted the first lady in the mid-18th century.