James Madison's Montpelier: Restoring a Mansion & a Man

© by Mary Burnham
Peter Post with original shingle

Hampton Roads Magazine, September 2008*

Peter Post stands on the deck atop one of the wings of James Madison's home, Montpelier, holding a small cypress roof shingle. Arrayed in front of him are more of the same - a few inches thick, square on one end, rounded on the other - each one a different size and shape.

But the one Post holds is special. It is an original, circa-1760s old-growth cypress shingle, found by chance in Montpelier's attic, and from it Post and his team hand-shaped 28,000 more to cover the historic home's roof.

"It is," Post said, smiling, "the holy grail of shingles."

The five-year, $24 million restoration of James Madison's Montpelier in Orange County has been called the most significant restoration of our generation, returning one the last unrestored home of a founding father to the public.

Restored fireplace

Post's dedication is hardly unique on this ongoing project. Some 30 craftspeople have been immersed in restoration projects that bring new meaning to the word "obsession." Bricks are fashioned using methods only available in the 18th century. A wall plaster of lime, sand and horsehair takes four to eight weeks to dry, and an entire year to cure. Master mason Ray Cannetti traveled to England to the quarry where the St. Bee's sandstone for the original fireplace mantle was mined.

Such dedication to authenticity and detail might lead some to question: Why? The answer is Madison himself, a man who until now is probably better known for his wife, Dolley, than his accomplishments.

James Madison

Historians credit Madison as the architect of the United States Constitution. It was at Montpelier, his lifelong home, that he studied the failings of past democracies and devised a plan to bind what at that time were 13 parochial states into a lasting union.

That makes Montpelier more than a mansion. Michael C. Quinn, president of the Montpelier Foundation, calls it a national monument to an important Founding Father. Madison is one of the most overlooked of the founding fathers. No other place in America interprets his life, until now.

The story of the restoration, extracting the Madison's 1820s Georgian home from a sprawling pink-stuccoed expansion that had tripled its size, is now on display.

Bring your walking shoes, and be prepared for an experience very unlike that of Washington's Mount Vernon or Jefferson's Monticello. Montpelier is still delightfully uncommercial. Paths lead through formal gardens, a landmark forest, past rolling horse pastures, to a slave cemetery and the gravesites of Dolley and James Madison.

The Man

Dolley Madison

A shy man, who never sought public attention, Madison's wife, Dolley, is probably more well-known than her patriot husband. She was a consummate hostess, the first president's wife to be called First Lady, while he preferred to mix in with the crowds at their lavish dinners. She became famous for saving a portrait of George Washington when the White House was burned during the War of 1812.

But historians say we have Madison to thank for the enduring form of our Constitution, and some go so far as to say, the very survival of the Union.

Under the Articles of Confederacy, he felt the fledging nation had gone from a monarchy too far to the other extreme, bordering on anarchy. The states had their own currency, were conducting foreign affairs, and taxing each other. He had studied the fate of revolutions throughout history and found it depressing: Revolutions historically led to tyranny.

And so he sought to bring about the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The purpose: to modify the Articles of Confederacy. He shepherded adoption of the new Constitution, which he believed joined the 13 states in an unbreakable bond. As the fourth president, from 1809 to1817, he went on to double the size of the nation through westward expansion, believing that in a nation so large, no one group could take control.

In his retirement, he summed up the driving force of his life:

"The advice dearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated" (Advice to my Country, 1834).

The Mansion

Almost prophetically, Madison's father, Ambrose, built the original brick Georgian in 1760 facing west toward the Blue Ridge Mountains: "facing the future."

This is the first time in a century and a half that we can stand on this deck and see the view Madison saw, said Post, standing atop one of two wing additions that were designed by Thomas Jefferson.

Madison added on to the house several times, building a wing for his mother and again when he married Dolley, but he took care to preserve the Georgian sense of symmetry, relying on his friend, Thomas Jefferson, for design.

Before renovation

Many of the home's features, such as the pediments over the doorways, are identical to those at Jefferson's Monticello.

After Madison's death in 1836, Dolley's son from a previous marriage took over the plantation. But he was an alcoholic and a gambler, good at one, bad at the other, according to tour guide Jayne Blair. After Madison's death, he began selling off the furnishings, artwork and even Madison's papers.

A succession of six owners followed, with pink stucco covering the brick at some point, until William and Annie duPont bought it in 1901.

removing additions

duPont added on even more, increasing it from 12,000 square feet and 22 rooms to 38,000 square feet, 55 rooms and 14 bathrooms.

The duPont's daughter Marion inherited the mansion, adding her Art Deco style to some of the decor. She has it declared an historic landmark, and on her death in 1984 wills that it be it be restored to the Madison's period. But it would be another 20 years before that massive task would even begin.

Early on, a feasibility study determined that the duPonts had left the original house remarkably intact.

Almost like surgeons, a huge team of workers and artisans set about to painstakingly extract the Madison home from additions built around it during the last century.

completed renovation

Amazingly, 90 percent of the wood floor, many of the doors, and even much of the window glass is original. To recreate what had been lost, they studied paint markings or "ghosts" of where stair treads, doors and windows had been. Conducting forensic archeology, restorers took apart hundreds of mice and rats nests containing fragments of wallpaper and draperies. Even Dolley's trash midden held clues: fragments of fine French porcelain, and meat bones indicating what the family ate.

African American Life

Basement kitchen

The topic of slavery is not shied away from at Montpelier, nor is the dichotomy of Madison's ideals from his role as slave owner.

As example, the basement kitchens where the house slaves would have spent most of their time, were given as much-if not more-attention than the room where Madison passed away.

"We must never forget that the life here was possible because of slaves," says tour guide Arnie Hughes. "There were 100 slaves for 10 whites."

Near the entrance to the plantation, the 1911 Montpelier Train Depot is being restored to house exhibits on African-American history. Across the highway stands the restored Gilmore Cabin, the post-Emancipation home of a former Montpelier slave.

Montpelier Excursions

Dig in Style: Join archeologists on "hallowed ground" as they unearth pottery, glassware, buttons, door hinges, and other remnants at Montpelier, home of our fourth President James Madison's. Behind-the-scenes tours, meals and lodging at a local inn are included.

The plantation is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it is roughly the size of the nearby town of Orange. 20th century farmhouses and stables built by the duPonts have been repurposed as lodging for visiting scholars, an education center, and an archeology lab. The new visitor center has exhibits, a theater, café and gift shop.

Horse-lovers can visit the stables housing the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, where about 60 retired race horses reside. The front lawn of Montpelier is a steeplechase track, where horses train year-round and races take place in November.

This article earned 2nd place for Best Magazine Article on U.S. Travel in the Society of American Travel Writers' Atlantic-Caribbean Chapter's 2009 writing contest.

Photos courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation.