Editors' pick

Montpelier

Historic Site
Montpelier photo
Suzanne Carr Rossi - Associated Press
'

Editorial Review

House Fit for a President (Again)

By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Is James Madison the Rodney Dangerfield of the Founding Fathers?

First of all, there's no Madison Memorial in Washington. Second, everyone remembers that it was his wife, Dolley, who saved George Washington's portrait when the British torched the White House. Plus, did you hear about the pink stucco slathered over the Madison family's brick home?

Well, that stucco is gone now, and POTUS No. 4's beloved Montpelier is finally back to the way it was when he and Dolley lived there after his presidency -- before James died and Dolley had to hock the house to cover her son's gambling debts.

Maybe it's best to try to capture the heyday, before all that messy stuff.

That was the goal of the Montpelier Foundation, which spent five years and $24 million stripping the house of all changes made by post-Madison owners, from bricked-up doorways to that salmon-hued stucco ordered up by the home's last owners, the du Ponts.

Yes, the same du Ponts who gave us nylons, Kevlar and Longwood Gardens.

The fact that folks like the du Ponts could amass enough wealth to transform Madison's boyhood home into a 55-room palace says a lot about the nation that the Father of the Constitution helped found. But it also posed the usual questions restorers face whenever they tackle a building that has been around for a couple of hundred years: Whose history should be preserved? In the case of a presidential home, the answer would seem obvious, and Marion duPont Scott made the decision clearer (though no less complicated) when she bequeathed the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Her dying wish was that her childhood home be returned to the way it was in James and Dolley Madison's time.

That's the house I set out to see one recent weekend, when I drove to Orange, Va., with hurricane warnings on the radio and a mousetrap set next to the kitchen cabinet where I had seen a little critter the night before. I figured that, in the Virginia Piedmont, splendid old houses would creak with history, not squeak with mice.

After a restful night and hearty breakfast at a bed-and-breakfast in downtown Orange, I drove to Montpelier, which was still shaking off its renovation dust in preparation for today's Constitution Day ceremony.

The green fields leading to the house were broken up by a white-fenced horse-racing track. Then I saw the house: red brick, long and symmetrical, with grand white columns framing the front portico.

Visitors can tour the house only with a guide, and audio guides are available for tours of the grounds. On that rainy Saturday, a guide named Sue met our six-person group at the back door. While we shook out our umbrellas on the porch, she told us, "This isn't like Monticello. We don't have a script." Then she ushered us inside.

For five years, visitors tramped through the house while workers re-shingled the roof, stripped plaster off walls, installed fireplaces and windows. Sam and Sharon Elswick, the owners of the Holladay House B&B in Orange, had raved the night before about seeing the bones of the house. Our guide told us it took 18 months for historians to figure out what the original Madison home had looked like, partly from evidence in the house (shadows of former chair rails, hidden murals) and partly from written records, paintings and photos. Over time, mysteries of the house began to reveal themselves under all the new additions.

The reconstruction of the house is finished, but it'll be a while before the furniture and decor are brought in. The plaster on the walls needs a few more months to cure, thanks to the Madison-era recipe of lime, sand and horsehair the restorers used for the sake of authenticity.

Yes, the people at the Montpelier Foundation, established by the National Trust to manage the property, are serious about authenticity.

So the house, which faces the rippling Blue Ridge Mountains and abuts the 200 acres of old-growth forest Madison preserved, is back to its modest 26 rooms, its carved stone mantels reinstalled, original doors back where they started. (Rich as they were, the du Ponts were thrifty; when they remodeled, they simply moved doors and such to different parts of the house or gave them to neighbors, rarely junking anything Madisonian.)

When William du Pont bought the house in 1901, he and his wife, Annie, decorated and expanded the place, leaving it to their daughter, Marion duPont Scott.

Scott was an independent, boundary-pushing horsewoman, one who, after two short-lived marriages in her 20s and the death of her parents, lived well into her 80s at Montpelier.

Scott and brother William trained racehorses (that's their white-fenced racetrack that you see from Montpelier's front windows), and three of her favorite horses are buried just north of the house.

Scott's one major change to the house was her art deco Red Room, where she kept photos of her horses, prizes from their races and a floor-to-ceiling mirror around the fireplace. The whole room is re-created in the visitor center's William duPont Gallery, which also houses information about the family.

The day I visited, the rain chased away any chance of ambling through the forest or visiting James and Dolley at the family cemetery. Instead, before the house tour and a walk through the formal gardens, I poked through the visitor center's exhibits, including "Treasures of Montpelier," which has one of Dolley's red dresses, her engagement ring and her snuff box.

There was also this: a scrap of wallpaper, a shred of red fabric, a ragged slip of paper with Madison's handwriting . . . all found in a mouse nest in a Montpelier wall.

Even Madison couldn't keep out the mice.