Almost a week has passed since the American election and still French newspapers are harping on, albeit a little more generally, about their beloved Amérique. This weekend’s Lifestyle section was crammed with Franco-American connections: the new expo at Paris’ Hotel de Ville called Paris, Seen from Hollywood (a post forthcoming about this); or the great friendship between our Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, and pre-revolutionary France; or even still the current rage Michelle Obama’s wardrobe is having on her French counterparts.
The story that grabbed my attention, however, was tucked in the top corner of the paper, an article entitled “Comme un Américain… en France!” Like an American… in France. Beside the title was a picture of the White House, only it was not as white as I remembered it being and it was surrounded by foliage where the great lawns were supposed to be. I turned to my husband to ask if I’d read the captions incorrectly. Was this the White House? Had something happened in the world of current events since I’d last turned on the news – had the White House aged?
No, he assured me. The building we all recognize as the American White House was apparently copied from a château in southwestern France by Thomas Jefferson when he visited the area in 1789.
Le Château du Rastignac stands about a 5 hour drive southwest of Paris near the town of Périgueux in the region of Dordogne, France. From the highway A89, as you pass Terrasson, look to your left and there among the trees off in the near distance is nothing short of the White House. The likeness is really remarkable, an unmistakable representation of the real thing… whichever one we now consider the original. It’s seems strange that I’d never heard of this place before and its ties to my homeland, especially given that my belle-famille’s country house is not even an hour’s drive from the château.
The house’s history and connection to the White House is convoluted but interesting. Almost three hundred years ago, the Marquis de Cropt de Rastignac had plans drawn up for a new family plot upon the ruins of an estate in Dordogne that had been in his family since the Middle Ages. In the 1780s, the plans were sent to l’Ecole d’architecture de Bordeaux where, as it just so happened, Thomas Jefferson visited in the late 1780s.
Of course, there is a great deal of controversy over what happened next. Did Jefferson have the plans copied and use the likeness of Château du Rastignac as a model for the White House? Perhaps, after all construction on the White House began in 1792, some three years after Jefferson’s visit. Although the French house was not completed until the early 1800s, the name of the house given on those original plans was Blanchard – something akin to White One.
The French version of the house was burned by the Germans in 1944 during the Second World War so for almost half a century pretty much all that was left of the mansion was the neoclassic façade which so resembles the famous South Portico of the American White House. About ten years ago, the mansion was refurbished into large apartments and is now a residential property so it is not open for visits, although passersby can grab more than a generous glimpse of the stately building from the forest and parks that surround it.