By Richard Moe | From Preservation | September/October 2008
James Madison's Montpelier is back. This year we'll celebrate Constitution Day—September 17—by formally reopening the lifelong home of the Father of the Constitution. And when I say "celebrate," I mean it: This ambitious restoration project has posed enormous challenges for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and our great partner the Montpelier Foundation. Its completion is an achievement in which all of us can take great pride.
When we received Montpelier in 1984 through a bequest from Marion duPont Scott, we acquired one of America's most significant historic sites. We also took on some major headaches. For one thing, the property's endowment was woefully inadequate. For another, James and Dolley Madison's home—the place that visitors were most interested in seeing—was largely concealed behind 20th-century additions and alterations. When I first came to the National Trust, Montpelier's problems seemed so daunting that some people felt we should sell it.
Since then, three very important things happened. First, the Montpelier Foundation was established to assume responsibility for stewardship of the site. With visionary leadership by foundation president Mike Quinn, board members Walter Craigie, Joe Grills, Dick Howard, Bill Lewis, Lou Potter, Bitsy Waters—all of whom have been involved from the very beginning—and many others, this dedicated, hard-working group has done amazing things, including an exhaustive amount of research to determine how much of the Madison-era building remained inside the duPont mansion.
That led to the second major advance. The research turned up reams of new information about the house. Most important (and most exciting for me) was the confirmation that Montpelier retained lots of original fabric.
The third development was a very generous gift from the estate of Paul Mellon that allowed us to translate the research into reality. The restoration began in 2003—much of it carried out under the gaze of visitors, since we kept the site open—and now we're ready to show off the results.
This is by far the biggest effort of its kind in the history of our organization, involving both the meticulous restoration of the house and the creation of a new visitors center honoring the exemplary stewardship of the duPont family. Looking beyond the buildings, Montpelier is a model for other historic sites in its strict reliance on research as a basis for the restoration, its demonstration of best practices in property management, and its commitment to broadening public understanding of the Madison legacy through the work of the new Center for the Constitution.
When you see the reborn Montpelier for yourself—and I hope you'll do so soon—I'm confident you'll share my excitement and pride in what we've all accomplished there.
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