Va. 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.

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