Madison's Makeover

Master stone mason Ray Cannetti carves a fireplace surround from St. Bees red sandstone from Cambria, England, the same vein as Madison's original.
Master stone mason Ray Cannetti carves a fireplace surround from St. Bees red sandstone from Cambria, England, the same vein as Madison's original. (Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 13, 2006

ORANGE, Va. -- If you haven't been to Montpelier, the home of James Madison, since it was owned by the duPont family, you won't recognize the place. The big pink manse is gone, and the long, flat line of its roof has been broken into three symmetrically arranged boxes. Its huge wings have been whittled down to one-story appendages, and even the four sweeping columns that support the front portico have been transformed into something more squat and sober. In a stunning transformation, an undistinguished home for the rich, horsy set has been replaced by a dour but dignified example of Piedmont Palladianism, the brick-and-wood Colonial style that Thomas Jefferson brought to splendor at Monticello.

Over the years, the 18th-century home of the nation's fourth president suffered the usual changes a house, if it remains a living entity, undergoes. Interiors were brought up to date, floor plans altered, stairways reconfigured. By the late 19th century, Architectural Record reported, "The interior of Montpelier has been remodeled out of all semblance to its original self." And in 1901, when the Virginia estate became the property of William duPont, it was subjected to a blitz of additions. By the time the last duPont owner, Marion duPont Scott, died in 1983, Madison's 22-room house had swelled to 55 rooms, with 12 bathrooms. The grounds of the old slave plantation had become a citadel of pleasure, dotted with horse tracks, stables, a cockfighting ring, dozens of outbuildings and a bowling alley.

The stables, bowling alley and cockfighting ring are still there, but the duPont additions to the original house have been scraped into the dustbin of history. The Pepto-Bismol stucco is gone, revealing brick walls, and the side wings now have a serrated roof of Jefferson's design (the two men mingled talk of plaster and nails with affairs of state throughout their long correspondence). The copper roof over the main house has been replaced with a complex fanwork of wood shingles. From the outside, Montpelier, which sits on a low rise in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, looks very much as it does in old drawings and watercolors from the time when James and Dolley Madison used it to entertain the friends, admirers and tourists who flocked there to see the president and his wife in their splendid retirement.

It was a radical decision to carve Madison's old home out of its early 20th-century encasing. If you tore down a 1901 townhouse in Washington, preservationists would clamor for your blood. The duPonts were an old and distinguished family, descendants of French nobility who had made a fortune in the chemical business, and their additions to Montpelier might be considered just as relevant to the house's larger history as the changes James Madison made when he began restructuring the house in 1797. Historic homes, argue many preservationists, have an organic, malleable identity that transcends any particular manifestation along their timeline. It's unlikely anyone would propose, for instance, that Hampton Court Palace in London be whacked down to its 16th-century nubbins just because Henry VIII once lived there.

And if one looks to houses for historical metaphors, the Montpelier bequeathed by the last duPont resident makes a very definite statement: Wealth had engulfed the modest Republican cloth coat of the original Founding Father. In a sense, the pink monster of Montpelier vindicated one of Madison's goals in the Constitution -- to make the new country safe for that particular minority distinguished from the masses by its great pots of money. Here was a house that proved the United States had never fallen prey to "a rage" for "an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project," as Madison wrote in Federalist Paper No. 10.

When Montpelier passed into the hands of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, there was heated debate about what should be done with it. W. Brown Morton III, a professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg who specializes in preservation issues, argued for maintaining the estate as a unified whole, reflecting all periods of its history.

"Far too many historic American properties have been stripped, gutted, dismembered or camouflaged in the name of 'restoration,' " he told The Post in 1989. "No restoration of a missing element at Montpelier, however well done, can ever be more than an elegant fake."

Michael C. Quinn, president of the Montpelier Foundation, which has raised funds and paid for the renovations, remembers that argument well. But he also remembers the frustration of trying to drum up interest in Madison's home when it didn't look very much like anything Madison would have known. Tourists had to do their own form of imaginative demolition as they traipsed through the sprawling duPont manse.

"It shouldn't have to be about saying 'Imagine that wall gone,' or 'No, there were no electric lights in Madison's home,' " Quinn says. "We never got to any engagement with history, ideas and people. We felt that was a failure. [Our] goal wasn't just to restore the home, but to restore Madison."

So the foundation did a feasibility study, an 18-month architectural survey that concluded, if done carefully and methodically, there was enough evidence in the structure to return it to the home Madison knew in the early 19th century. Paintings, letters, detailed invoices from James Dinsmore, Madison's master builder, and even early photographs could help fill the gaps. The project, which won't be finished until 2009, will cost $23 million, of which $18 million was donated by the estate of Paul Mellon.

"Given how much the house had changed, we were surprised by how much was still there," says Mark Wenger, an architectural historian overseeing the changes. The duPonts may have been rich, but they were also frugal, at least when it came to the guts of the house. Many elements torn out of the old house ended up elsewhere on the property. Wooden rafters from Madison's day were found in the bowling alley, and the sharp peaks cut into their edges gave vital clues about how the original serrated roof was laid out. Windows and doors from the house were also found. Even the hearthstone from a fireplace in Madison's main parlor was located in a root cellar.

"They preserved the home even as their additions engulfed it," says Quinn. John Jeanes, Montpelier's director of restoration, says that more original windows were lost during changes made in the mid-19th century than during the duPont years. And as restoration proceeds, there's been a gathering in of a diaspora of Madison-era objects, including not only furniture but also architectural elements. The foundation invites returns and hopes for an uptick as the house comes together in its new form. Much of what they already have was found within a few miles of the 2,650-acre estate.

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