Uncovering Montpelier's Hidden Past

After five years, and a restoration costing millions of dollars, James Madison’s Virginia home stands revealed once again

Montpelier
?Today, as during Madison's lifetime, the neoclassical house has 26 rooms. Experts credit Thomas Jefferson with the design for the front doorway.

Credit: Regis Lefebure

As you clear the oaks and tulip poplars flanking the access road just off a rural highway in central Virginia, a stunning house swings into view nearly a quarter mile away. Its neoclassical proportions, portico, and red brick lend a touch of order to the acres of landscape rolling before it—all those green fields, accented with white fencing.

You're looking at James Madison's Montpelier, the home where the fourth president of the United States, the Father of the Constitution, spent much of his youth, and where he lived with his wife, Dolley, from 1797 to 1836. You're also looking at one of the most ambitious house restoration projects of modern times.

For a century this house lay buried within the walls of a later, more ornate—and much larger—country mansion. That's because the duPont family purchased Montpelier in 1900 and turned it into a 55-room manse worthy of post-Gilded Age American aristocrats—right down to the salmon-colored stucco adorning the facade. Marion duPont Scott lived here for much of her life and wanted to leave Montpelier to the nation. So after her death in 1983, heirs transferred their interests to the National Trust for Historic Preservation (see "The duPont Legacy," page 34).

For the next two decades, not much happened. Dwindling numbers of tourists walked through the house's empty rooms, but many left confused: This didn't look like the home of a Founding Father. It looked like the country estate of a privileged heiress.

That is, until 2003 and the beginning of a top-to-bottom restoration that would eventually cost $24 million, most of it funded by the estate of Paul Mellon.

Today, Madison's Montpelier stands restored, refurbished, and reborn. Set to make a formal debut on September 17, Constitution Day, it will be, advocates say, as close as modern architectural research can bring us to the house Madison knew. "This was the most careful scholarly restoration of an American property of the last 50 years—and it will be for the next 50 years," says Calder Loth, senior architectural historian at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Loth served on a committee of experts that ratified the idea of rescuing Madison's house from the mansion that engulfed it.

For supporters, this project's importance goes well beyond any architectural issues. Now Montpelier "has the potential of helping Americans recapture the Madisonian understanding of government and the Constitution," says Ralph Ketcham, a Syracuse University historian, Madison biographer, and member of the Montpelier Foundation board. Many sites honor Washington and Jefferson, but there's never been a place to consider Madison's immense contributions to his country, even though no one played a greater part in drafting the Constitution and securing the states' assent to its provisions.

Underscoring Montpelier's educational mission, a new Center for the Constitution has been established on the grounds, where, on weekends, historians and law professors already tutor high-school teachers (and sometimes government officials) in constitutional theory.

Montpelier undoubtedly looks glorious now (though the staff anticipates complaints when historically accurate redwash, or paint, goes onto that splendid brick, confounding our notions of what this sort of house should look like). Glorious, too, is the view from Madison's portico, which takes in the Blue Ridge Mountains on the horizon and Marion duPont Scott's horse track. From the portico you can also catch a glimpse of the distinctive hedges she planted—part of a steeplechase on the property. Standing amid so much beauty, you might never guess that restoration here proved incredibly contentious.

DuPont Scott (she married actor Randolph Scott, divorced him amicably, then kept his name) always hoped that the Madisonian part of Montpelier would be restored; she made this clear in her will. But she probably didn't imagine that restoration would require tearing down half of the house she loved to reveal its Federal-period core.

Several times in the years immediately following her bequest, the National Trust rejected, on the advice of experts, a restoration that would remove the duPont additions. One authority, W. Brown Morton III, a professor of historic preservation at the University of Mary Washington, told The Washington Post in 1989 that such a restoration could produce only an "elegant fake."

"The general philosophy of the National Trust," explains Jim Vaughan, the organization's vice president for stewardship of historic sites, "is that preservation of a building and its entire history is preferable to restoring it to an earlier time."

Shortly after starting his job in 2000, Vaughan learned that National Trust President Richard Moe had been in talks with representatives from the estate of Paul Mellon; Mellon's estate had offered the Montpelier Foundation financial support to explore what it would take to restore the building—with hints of a windfall if restoration was plausible. In the end, the National Trust gave a tentative green light, if Montpelier's staff could prove that the restoration would be authentic, and wholly fact-based.

To help make that call, Vaughan suggested that Michael C. Quinn, president of the Montpelier Foundation, put together an advisory board of architectural consultants. Quinn recruited experts from the National Trust, Monticello, Mount Vernon, Old Salem, the Maryland Historical Trust, and Poplar Forest, as well as the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Unpaid and independent, the advisers had to answer a fundamental question: Was there enough historical evidence to support an accurate restoration of Montpelier?

Even in Madison's lifetime, Montpelier was a work in progress. The first house on the site was a two-story brick structure built by James Madison Sr., father to the president, in 1765. This is where James Jr. lived from age 10, and where he returned after graduation from Princeton.

In 1797, after marrying Dolley and completing his term in the U.S. Congress, James Jr. expanded the house and added a portico, creating a residence big enough for himself, his wife, and his parents. It was a protoduplex now, with no links between the living spaces. A decade later, President Madison, (full owner of the house following his father's death), commissioned two more wings, an elegant entrance and—finally—halls linking the two halves of the house. He worked with the master builder James Dinsmore and took advice from his friend and Virginia neighbor Thomas Jefferson, who may have proposed delicate rails for the roofs of the wings.

Madison died in 1836, and Dolley sold the property in 1844. The fate of the house fell successively to seven owners, who had wildly different ideas about how the place should look.

Then came the duPonts, whose stewardship was lavish and extraordinary. It turns out that Marion's father, William duPont, was a preservationist of sorts. Thirty-seven of 61 original doors remained in the house, albeit often moved. Windows, too, had been recycled, and many stood in their original openings. Missing lengths of Madisonian cornice reemerged in the attic, where duPont's carpenters had used them to hang lath; original shutters turned up in a nearby barn. These invaluable discoveries helped researchers identify the c. 1812 house as the target of their restoration.

Several post-Madison changes were obvious. In the late 1850s, the front porch floor had been removed and the columns brought down to the ground. But architectural advisers doubted they could learn enough about other remodelings to proceed with an accurate restoration. "Probably every person on the committee went in there thinking you should probably not remove the duPont stuff," says Travis McDonald, director of architectural restoration for Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson's Virginia retreat.

What changed their minds was painstaking research.

Historians peering under the hipped roofs on Montpelier's wings expected to find stuccoed walls, but discovered bare brick instead (leading to a lot of delicate chipping over the next few years). Researchers punched 300-plus investigative holes into the walls, discovering the ghostly outlines of missing chair rails and stairs. They even uncovered original fireplaces behind the duPonts' elaborate mantels, and fragments of carvings on chimney pieces—evidence enough to allow a master stoneworker to refashion the originals. The team also pored over James Dinsmore's bills, which included accounts of exactly which materials he had used. "It's been a mountaintop experience to witness the revelations as the house gives up its secrets," says Mark Wenger, an architect who was on the staff of Colonial Williamsburg when he started the investigation, and now works with Mesick, Cohen, Wilson, Baker Architects—the firm overseeing the restoration.

Serendipitous discoveries continued after the investigation ended and deconstruction began. A lecturer from Bryn Mawr College, informed of the Montpelier project, searched the records of a 19th-century insurance firm and happened upon a plat of the estate dating to 1837. It revealed several previously unknown buildings—slaves' quarters and smokehouses that are now being excavated by Montpelier's director of archaeology, Matthew Reeves.

In the end, Wenger's team determined that the house was "both knowable and physically recoverable," and the architectural advisers concurred.

Now, with the heavy lifting of restoration nearly done, curators are attempting to trace Madison's widely dispersed furnishings. In one recent coup, the curators tracked a large Madison-owned painting, Pan, Youths and Nymphs, by Gerrit van Honthorst, to a collector in Amsterdam, who has agreed to loan it. Associate Curator Allison Deeds has even figured out where it hung, using original nail holes and period descriptions of the room as her guide. (Paintings won't appear on the walls of the main building until the plaster dries and the air conditioning gets up to speed.)

The spirited debate in preservation circles has not died down, however. It's entirely possible that a different architectural advisory team—one comprising more academics and fewer experts from historic sites, perhaps—might have nixed the deconstruction-cum-restoration approach used at Montpelier.

One skeptic is Daniel Bluestone, director of the historic preservation program at the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville. Though he concedes that the scientific-sounding research and analysis at Montpelier are "seductive," they make it easy to overlook just how much of the building is, in fact, new—as opposed to "recovered." (Mark Wenger guesses that roughly 20 percent of the house is not original construction.)

A more central question, says Bluestone, is, "Do you take your preservation in layers?" The 2002 house, with its intertwined Madison and duPont legacies, offered extensive opportunities for public education. "What the Montpelier approach does is create a time capsule," he says. " That breaks any sense of continuity between the past and the present."

Calder Loth, of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, acknowledges the skeptics' argument. But Madison, he contends, is sui generis, and the estate needs to focus on his era, his impacts, and his contributions: He "completely overshadowed what happened to the house in subsequent eras and iterations."

Visitors following the long road up to Montpelier today discover a gleaming restoration of the house James and Dolley Madison treasured. She told her sister that here in Virginia, she'd found "the happiest and most true life." And Madison—the writer, philosopher, and country farmer—was even more direct. Montpelier, he said, is "a squirrel's jump from heaven."

Montpelier received a matching grant for its restoration from Save America's Treasures.

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