Associate Editor Amy Alipio recently ventured to Virginia to witness the restoration efforts at Montpelier, the former home of our fourth President, James Madison.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know a whole lot about James Madison before I visited his house, Montpelier, recently. Without the benefit of an HBO mini-series chronicling his life, our fourth president is probably the least known of the nation’s founding fathers. And that’s not for his lack of accomplishment. As architect of the Constitution and drafter of the Bill of Rights, he’s basically responsible for devising our entire system of government.
With the goal of promoting his legacy, a $24-million project is currently restoring Madison’s Georgian-style home in Virginia to what it looked like in the 1820s, when Madison and his wife Dolley retired there after his presidency.
The project hasn’t been an easy task. After Madison’s death at Montpelier in 1836, Dolley sold the estate in 1844 to pay her bills and those of her son, John Payne Todd, who was a gambler and alcoholic (“Bad at one, good at the other,” says a Montpelier guide). The house had six different owners before William and Annie duPont bought Montpelier in 1901 and enlarged the house from 22 rooms to 55. They added wings, an additional story, and painted the house cotton-candy pink. Restorers first had to eliminate all of that, and then begin the painstaking process of authentically recreating the Madisons’ 1820s house, using original beams, windows, and doors whenever possible.
Detective work by a team of archaeologists, restoration experts, craftsmen, and artisans has revealed actual paint and wallpaper scraps, the existence of a long-lost staircase, the original wooden roof shingles, and even the location of the Madisons’ long-buried carriage road.
“Recovery of the house is the equivalent of finding a new important document about James Madison,” says John Jeanes, director of restoration. For example, the discovery that the drawing room’s mantelpiece was made from a rare white sandstone from England reveals that “status was important to the Madisons,” says master mason Ray Cannetti, who traveled to that specific quarry in England to source the stone for his re-creation of the mantelpiece.
You can visit Montpelier—located about 2 hours south of Washington, D.C., in bucolic Orange County, Virginia—now to see the final touches being made, including the laying of the original gravel entry path to the house. Voluntourists might want to sign up for archaeological excavation programs focusing on the slave quarters in the south yard, where the Madisons’ house slaves lived. Or you can wait until Constitution Day, September 17, to attend Montpelier’s grand opening “Restoration Celebration.” By that date, the work of architectural restoration will be complete—though the equally investigative job of furnishing the house with authentic Madison pieces will still be in full swing.
Photographs: Above, In April 2006 Montpelier's exterior restoration was largely completed, with the mansion once again appearing as it did in James and Dolley Madison's day. Courtesy of the Montpelier
Foundation. Below, Craftsmen restore original brickwork at Montpelier. Courtesy Virginia Lime Works.