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Objects may be the lifeblood of museums, but sometimes open spaces, such as the hallway delineated by majestic white columns at the National Museum of American History, also compel our attention. Like other Smithsonian historic spaces, this re-creation of the Cross Hall of the White House closely resembles the real article, down to the same Roman Doric capitals, cornices and pilasters that greeted Presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Harry Truman. Rooted in antiquity, such architectural elements were popular in America in the 18th century. But their serene authority here bears the lasting mark of the 20th century--and of a few of its strongest wills.
Today, we take for granted that the President lives and works in the White House, with its elegant parlors of various hues and shapes. But back in 1792, when James Hoban presented his design for an executive residence to President George Washington, no one knew exactly what the President's Palace, as it had been fancifully termed, would--or should--be.
An immigrant from Ireland, Hoban drew inspiration for his design from an aristocratic Dublin house. For the Presidential dwelling, he inked a plain first-floor entrance hall set off by columns from what would become an 80-foot-long transverse hall connecting all the first floor reception rooms. Though it seemed immense, Washington was unperturbed. The President's house, he wrote …