James Madison's Montpelier: Restoration Celebration

Posted on: September 18th, 2008 by Matt Ringelstetter

"If you're looking for Madison's memorial, look around. Look around at a free country, governed by the rule of law." With these words, Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts presided over the opening of the newly restored physical memorial to the life of our nation's fourth president.

In addition to being the home of the Madison family for nearly 80 years, and the building where, in the mid-1780's, James Madison crafted the Virginia Plan--a major influence at the Constitutional Convention of 1787--Montpelier can now lay claim to be what National Trust for Historic Preservation President Richard Moe calls, "the biggest, most complex, most ambitious research and restoration project in the history of the National Trust and probably in the history of the nation." On Wednesday, September 17 (Constitution Day) with several thousand in attendance, the ribbon was cut, signaling the completion of Montpelier's five year architectural restoration.

Built around 1764 by James Madison's father, the house went through several additions by the family before

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

the President's death in 1836 and the selling of the estate by his wife Dolley in 1844. The history of the estate does not end there, as later families who called Montpelier home added their own unique touches to the property. Most notable amongst these was the duPont family whose purchase in 1901 by Delaware native William was soon followed by the eventual transformation of Montpelier into a luxurious country home. The duPonts expanded the house from 26 rooms to a total of 55. The family also added a second story to each of the Madison-era wings and rooms to the rear of the building--additions that doubled the square-footage of the home.

In 1928, William duPont’s daughter Marion duPont Scott inherited the estate and continued to add her own personal flavor to Montpelier. Known around the world for her equestrian interests, the duPont heiress added a race track and other facilities on the grounds. Her exquisite Art Deco “Red Room” displayed trophies and the photos of winning thoroughbreds. Marion, however, was also interested in history, and understood the significance of the home in the context of the American nation. This led to her wish to have Montpelier restored to its Madison-era appearance in her will.

Upon Marion duPont Scott’s passing in 1983, the National Trust for Historic Preservation inherited Montpelier and opened it to the public in 1987 to honor the 200th anniversary of the United States Constitution. In 2000, the Montpelier foundation stepped in as stewards of the home, and soon after began the extensive physical and documentary research process to determine the feasibility of restoring the mansion to its Madison-era appearance. In addition to documents such as builder’s invoices, recollections from Madisonian visitors and a 1808 drawing of Montpelier circulated between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, architectural historians let the actual building tell them how it had looked during the 1820’s. As layers of plaster and twentieth-century additions were carefully peeled away, imprints of original building fabric were revealed. “Everywhere we had a question,” director of restoration John Jeanes stated, “it seems the house itself gave us the answers.”

James Madison's Montpelier

James Madison's Montpelier

The findings of the historical research insured that the home could be returned to its 1820’s form, and in 2003 the project commenced. Richard Moe’s statement on the scale of the project was no exaggeration, and in order to ensure the authenticity and quality of the building, the project relied upon a restoration philosophy based on four beliefs:

1. Restoration based on evidence.
2. Preservation of original fabric whenever possible.
3. The use of replacement materials as close to the period as possible.
4. Craftsmanship of the highest quality.

Along the way, the restoration project was publicized through the use of an innovative web log, allowing the public and preservation enthusiasts to witness Montpelier’s progression. Restorations to the home included:

-Removing the two second story wings added in the early 1900’s.
-Reducing the number of rooms to 26.
-Removal of the exterior stucco
-Rebuilding of the front porch and colonnade.
-Interior work on framing, partitions, staircases, painting, and repairs to wood flooring.

Yesterday marked the conclusion of this process and the celebration of Montpelier’s return to Madisonian form. In addition to Chief Justice Roberts and Richard Moe, the audience was treated to speeches from U.S. House Representative Eric Cantor, Governor of Virginia Timothy Kaine, and a reading of the Preamble of the Constitution from Madison Iler Wing (Madison family descendant) and Raleigh Marshall (descendant of Paul Jennings, a Montpelier slave).

Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps - 3rd United States Infantry Regiment

Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps - 3rd United States Infantry Regiment

Montpelier was the home where James Madison was raised, lived with his wife Dolley, and retired after serving as president. From its opening to the public in 1987, the estate has always provided a valuable interpretation of the house and property. With the completion of the architectural restoration bringing the home back to that which James and Dolley would recognize, the nation has been given a national monument to the legacy of our fourth president, and a place where all can learn about the man, his home and our Constitution.

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