Restoration May Polish Montpelier's Reputation

The exterior of James Madison's Montpelier is being restored to its traditional brick facade and colonial white door.
The exterior of James Madison's Montpelier is being restored to its traditional brick facade and colonial white door. (2004 Photo/associated Press)
By Scott Harper
The Virginian-Pilot
Thursday, May 4, 2006

ORANGE, Va. -- Of all the Founding Fathers, James Madison might be the least celebrated. Shy, short and intellectual, Madison lacked George Washington's stoic charisma, Thomas Jefferson's grace and idealism and John Adams's bombast and ambition.

Madison's estate, Montpelier, similarly has been overlooked. Located on 2,650 acres of rolling horse country near Orange, a town about 20 miles northeast of Charlottesville, Montpelier has never drawn the tourists and attention that descend on Jefferson's Monticello or Washington's Mount Vernon. An army of preservationists, architects and carpenters hopes to change that.

Last week, the Montpelier Foundation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation unveiled the renovated exterior of Madison's grand mansion, ending the first phase of a $29 million restoration project that sponsors boast "may be the most important one going on in the nation today."

Gone is the pink stucco that a previous private owner slapped over Madison's traditional brick facade. Gone, too, is the aqua-blue front door that the same owner installed, a neon beacon that gave Montpelier a not-so-historic air of Elvis and Las Vegas. A colonial white door, with latticed windows on both sides, has replaced it.

The project is actually a "deconstruction," said Peggy Seiter Vaughn, communications director of the nonprofit Montpelier Foundation, as workers are reducing the mansion from 55 rooms to the 22 rooms that Madison and his socialite wife, Dolley, enjoyed for nearly four decades.

The so-called "Father of the Constitution," framer of the Bill of Rights and a key thinker of New World democracy and the American Revolution, Madison died at his beloved home in 1836.

He is buried in the family plot near his mansion among a shady grove of trees.

"We believe that the restoration of Montpelier -- in effect, pulling the fourth president's lifelong home out of the shadows of later alterations -- will help restore Madison himself to the prominence he deserves," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

A forensic architect standing on a ladder in the living room last month described how he was probing thick layers of paint with what looked like a dental instrument, hoping to tell where Madison had placed paintings and pictures on the walls.

Round blue and red stickers marked where the art pieces were suspected -- and not suspected -- of hanging more than 200 years ago.

Wearing a hard hat, Vaughn described the restoration as "sort of like detective work," given a dearth of original house plans and documents. "We find out something new almost every day," she said.

On a recent day, for instance, Vaughn learned at a morning staff meeting that an original mantel had been discovered at another home on nearby Chicken Mountain Road. How it got there is unknown, but Vaughn said it will be removed and set back in its rightful place in the mansion.

Other surprises have surfaced. Behind some wallboards on the second floor, crews found a mouse nest containing pieces of red fabric, shreds of newspaper dating to Madison's time and a note scrap with Madison's handwriting on it.

Madison's father built the mansion in 1760, a boxy and much smaller structure than what appears there now.

Madison expanded it twice -- adding on when he brought his bride to Montpelier for the first time and again during his first term as president, between 1809 and 1812.

The last private owner of Montpelier was Marion duPont Scott. Her husband was the Hollywood actor Randolph Scott. They built two horse-racing courses on the grounds and started the Montpelier Hunt Races, an annual steeplechase that draws thousands of people.

The matriarch bequeathed the estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1984.

She asked that the mansion be returned to its original state, in honor of James and Dolley Madison. Her friends, the Mellon family, donated $20 million to the effort, and the National Park Service chipped in $1 million.

A feasibility study was conducted, and the results were announced in 2003: It would be possible to fully restore the mansion to its original size, structure, form and furnishings. Work began soon afterward, and the mansion, which sits atop a gentle hill, has been cloaked in scaffolding and plastic wrap for the past 18 months.

Last month Vaughn gasped when she saw the grand house without its coverings for the first time. "Oh, my God," she said, her hand trembling over her mouth. "It's beautiful!"

Now the work will focus on completing the back of the house. Then, attention will turn to the interior. Vaughn said the mansion should be fully restored by December 2007.

The Montpelier Foundation in 2004 announced a fundraising effort seeking $60 million to pay for a new visitor's center on the property and a new gateway entrance to Montpelier. The Mellon gift helped kick off the drive, intended to finally make Montpelier a true tourist and historical destination.

Passing yellow and purple blooms of wildflowers on country roads crisscrossing the estate last week, Vaughn pointed to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

"Thomas Jefferson used to come right over those mountains to visit Madison," she said, "and we'd love to see visitors to Monticello do the same thing and come see us."

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