Madison's Makeover
Project Is Restoring the Dignified and Sturdy Character of His Oft-Altered Home, Montpelier

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 In a stunning transformation, an undistinguished home for the rich, horsy set has been replaced by a dour but dignified example of Piedmont Palladianism, the brick-and-wood Colonial style that Thomas Jefferson brought to splendor at Monticello.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.

A Shrine to Madison

On a tour of the house earlier this month, Jeanes pointed out an old chimney piece, an original from Madison's house, borrowed from a local family (to whom it had been given during the duPont years). Every detail is being scrutinized, from paint chips to nail holes that indicate how it was fitted into place. He also points out strips of wood that have been carefully put back together to reconstruct a wall panel, a jigsaw puzzle that reveals the ghost markings of an old staircase. In what was once Madison's dining room, Jeanes notes (with considerable relief) the reconstruction of a load-bearing wall that had been removed, despite the fact that a bathroom with a six-foot cast iron tub was placed above it.

As with most reconstruction efforts, leaders of the project have had to decide on a certain standard of compromise. In the attic, underneath the cypress-shingled roof, Jeanes points to a Gore-Tex-like fabric that is being used to make the home more weatherproof. Plumbing from later renovations will be removed, though a small bathroom will be tucked into a closet space. Ductwork is being hidden in fireplaces and in interstitial spaces that will be closed up as the house is returned to Madison's floor plan. The main intake for the heating and cooling system is being run underground into the basement from a spot outside the house where the guts of the system will be buried out of sight. While the trench is being dug, one whole wall of the house hangs from massive, temporary girders. Even preserved pollen, found in old postholes, is being saved to help guide the landscaping when the grounds are restored.

Perhaps the most fundamental compromise, however, has been the decision as to which of Madison's houses the end product will most resemble. The original mansion was built in the 1760s by Madison's father, and although it was one of the largest buildings in Orange County at the time, it was small and boxy by comparison with the house that Madison died in decades later. After Madison married Dolley Payne Todd, a Quaker widow who quickly transformed herself into an elegant Virginia matron, he enlarged the house by adding a 30-foot extension to one side. At that point, Montpelier was essentially a duplex, with James and Dolley living in one part and James's parents in the other; although there's no evidence of domestic dissonance, the two sides had no interior connection. Later, a large portico was added, the two spaces connected and, in 1809-1812, two brick wings built on either side.

It is essentially that house -- the basic lines of which were established while Madison was president -- that emerged when a red curtain was pulled off in a grand unveiling ceremony last April. With the demolition of the duPont additions, the argument about how the home would be preserved was over. Like it or not, the reduced, restored Montpelier is now a shrine to Madison. But while the process of finding the Madison house has been meticulous (Jeanes calls the demolition work "surgical"), there is a larger question. Is there enough Madison in Montpelier to be interesting? And perhaps even more to the point, was Madison himself interesting enough for his home to be a required stop on the federal history tour?

Quinn, not surprisingly, thinks yes. He cites Madison's usual sobriquet, "Father of the Constitution," and tells a story about taking a prominent Constitutional scholar through the house. When they got to Madison's library, a central second-floor space under the portico, the man asked for a moment of silence. He wanted to absorb the atmosphere in the room where Madison did the basic R&D on the document that still governs the nation today.

But is that enough? You can easily imagine one of Jane Austen's insufferably fashioned-crazed characters wandering the grounds of Montpelier and declaring the house rather a pedestrian pile. It has a squat, classical dignity, but none of the jewel-like charm and interior idiosyncrasy of Monticello (though the affinity of the two homes will increase if plans to whitewash the front columns proceed). People will always go to Mount Vernon because it belonged to the Father of Our Country. And the John Adams house in Quincy, Mass., has a sober probity to it that speaks volumes about the Puritan-descended family who gave us the second and sixth presidents (and the only ones, at that point in the country's history, who never owned slaves). Can Montpelier hold its own in that company?

"Once you can really see the whole thing, this house is a major architectural statement," says Quinn. He points out that what might seem prosaic to some will be read as pragmatic by others.

"Monticello is a beautiful home," Quinn says. "But when Jefferson didn't get it right the first time, he tore it down and started over. [Madison] is not a perfectionist, he's pragmatic. That makes him the right man to work on the Constitution." Wenger sees evidence of that pragmatism in the careful expansion and rebalancing of the home during the years Madison owned it. "He's very clever in taking Step B with Step C already in mind," he says.

Loss and Reclamation

Regardless of its architectural merits, Montpelier is being restored at a cultural moment that is particularly devoted to canonizing the Founding Fathers. And Madison, a shy bookish figure who was deeply respected but never had the flash and sizzle of Jefferson or the grandeur of Washington, is increasingly getting his due. Richard Labunski, in his newly published "James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights," lays out Madison's pivotal role in selling the Constitution to the people of Virginia. If Virginia, the young country's most important state, had remained wayward from the rest, then George Washington, a Virginian, could not have been the first president -- and the future of the country might well have been in doubt. Catherine Allgor has published "A Perfect Union," a major reconsideration of Dolley Madison, which argues that she played a pivotal role in setting the tone not just for future first ladies, but also for the behind-the-scenes Washington social life that traditionally helped political factions find common ground.

Allgor's book also leaves one with a sense of sadness about Montpelier. Dolley and James retired to the estate after he left office in 1817. It was, Allgor writes, a triumphant retirement. The country had weathered the British depredations of 1814, including the burning of the White House. Dolley was beloved, her husband respected. Much of the factionalism that James had fretted over during the framing of the Constitution was in temporary recession. The implications of the Constitution's major failing, its retention of slavery, could still be papered over. And the Civil War, including several major battles fought within a few miles of Montpelier, was years away.

But as a financial concern, Montpelier was already failing. Over the next decades, it was mortgaged as farm prices fell and the drink and gambling debts of Dolley's wastrel son, John Payne Todd, mounted. Madison died in 1836, but the proceeds from the publication of his memoirs couldn't save the house. Nor could a new mortgage from John Jacob Astor in 1842. In 1844 the estate, and its slaves, passed out of Dolley's hands.

A century and a half later, Montpelier is being reinvented as part of the urgent remedial education project about American history and values being done piecemeal around the country by groups including the National Park Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and private ventures such as Mount Vernon. Like the exposed lathe of the walls at Montpelier, Madison, the man, will need to be built up, layer by layer. It won't necessarily be easy. He was erudite -- "sedentary and studious," according to one description -- and in later years he became garrulous. He suffered horribly from diarrhea, which made travel a penitential experience. He was short, balding and mostly wore black. His accomplishments inspire a certain admiration, but the man doesn't throb with personality.

But the foundation that now runs Montpelier is hoping that rooms like the one beneath the portico, once a library, will help. On a recent visit, sawdust was falling in from the attic above, a strange snow on a torrid day. The fireplace is still there, but you had to imagine everything else: the books, the chair and the man in it, pondering the lawgivers and tyrants of the past. If you lean down, to catch a view of the mountains beneath the overhang of the portico, the room begins to make a certain sense. Here, comfortably pampered by slaves, nestled in a womblike room of books, Madison imagined a republic that would engulf the continent and outlast all its precedents. The first part of that dream came true. The second, like the interior of the house, is a work in progress.

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