Railroad Station Restoration
Montpelier revives a 1910 depot with a segregated past
By Lauren Walser | From Preservation | January/February 2011
When the Montpelier Foundation set out to restore a train depot near the public entrance to James Madison's house, the nonprofit organization knew it faced a challenge—and not just because the clapboard structure, last used as a station in 1974, was showing its age.
The big question facing the foundation that manages Montpelier was how to tell the depot's story. Built by William duPont, who acquired Montpelier in 1901, the building not only served as a station for the region just south of Orange, Va., it also embodied Jim Crow-era segregation: Until the late 1950s, "White" and "Colored" signs identified separate waiting rooms.
Working in close consultation with the Orange County African-American Historical Society, the foundation ultimately decided to restore the depot to its original state, separate waiting rooms and all. "It took a lot of careful thought, but we decided that the right thing to do was to tell the story of segregation and make it an educational experience," says Michael Quinn, the foundation's president.
The proposal to prominently display the "Colored" and "White" signs divided members of the local African American community at first. Some wanted to put that era behind them, others wanted the depot to stand as a stark reminder of the past. After the foundation spent months soliciting feedback, the divisions eased. "We were completely transparent with what we were doing so that the community understood our intentions from the moment we started talking with them," says Tom Chapman, research coordinator at the foundation. "They understood that we wanted to do it right, that we wanted the depot to be authentic, and that we didn't have any hidden agendas."
Fortunately, the building remained in structurally good condition, with many original objects still inside—benches, documents, an early telephone. Workers removed 26 layers of paint from the exterior and repainted the depot in its original yellow. They stripped aging varnish from the interior, repaired significant water rot and termite damage, and stabilized the roof and interior walls.
Now, after a restoration that cost more than $500,000, the depot's waiting rooms look exactly as they did nearly a century ago, with the tiny space marked "Colored" standing in sharp contrast to the spacious, light-filled "White" counterpart. Historical documents and newspaper clippings hang from bulletin boards inside, and audio recordings play oral histories gathered from the community. Antique telegraphs, telephones, and typewriters fill the station agent's office.
The depot is the latest addition to what Quinn calls the interpretive arc of African American history at Montpelier, which includes Madison's plantation (dependent on slave labor) and a recently restored freedman's cabin. "We didn't want this restoration and exhibit to come across as, ‘Look how ugly American history is,' " Quinn says. "Our real intent was to say, ‘Look how far we've come.' "
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