By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 18, 2008
U.S. Supreme Court justices, Virginia's governor and 2,600 children forming a "living flag" came together yesterday to celebrate the $24 million restoration of the Montpelier mansion, which now looks as it did when James Madison lived there.
The event capped a five-year effort by historians and archaeologists at the home of the man known as the "father of the Constitution." For years, Montpelier has lingered in the shadows of the estates of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., speaking at the estate on the 221st anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, said that although Montpelier is a fitting tribute to Madison, the most prominent memorial is the fact that the United States is "a free country governed by the rule of law."
He praised the estate, about 90 miles southwest of Washington near Orange, Va., saying that it "stands with Mount Vernon and Monticello." During the ceremony, 2,600 schoolchildren held up red, white and blue placards to form an American flag. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) were among the estimated 6,000 people who attended the event.
Madison's estate, restored by the Montpelier Foundation, once covered 5,000 acres and was home to as many as 100 slaves. Several owners -- notably William duPont, who tripled the size of the mansion -- significantly altered the appearance of the house in the years after Madison died in 1836.
The celebration yesterday brought together descendants of Madison's family and of slaves who worked on the plantation grounds. Madison Iler Wing, a seventh-generation descendant of Madison's sister Sarah, and Raleigh Marshall, a descendant of Madison's personal slave, took turns reading the preamble to the Constitution.
Marshall, 25, is a descendant of Paul Jennings, Madison's personal assistant who continued to work for Dolley Madison after her husband died. He was credited with helping Dolley save a portrait of George Washington when the White House was burned by the British in the War of 1812, during Madison's second term.
Marshall said the most gratifying thing about the project was that a Montpelier genealogist helped him piece together a family tree, "and I reunited with cousins I didn't know," including those who live near him in Washington.
"I learned so much about family history," said Marshall, who works as an information technology contractor for the Defense Department.
Six to 12 Jennings descendants remain, Marshall said, and a reunion might be in the works.
Madison has received less posthumous fame than other founding fathers, although he sponsored the Bill of Rights and was the nation's fourth president.
Wing's aunt, Margaret Boeker, said that she has been watching the gradual return of Montpelier to the public and efforts to properly recognize Madison, who, because of his modesty and shyness, "was always kind of in the background," she said. "He never put himself forward."
Foundation President Michael C. Quinn said that in addition to the "forensic" approach taken by restorers, the project benefited from some "lucky breaks." A mantel that had been given to a neighbor about 1950 was found, and the original bricks on the mansion's facade held together while stucco was removed.
The restoration also scaled the home down from 55 rooms to 26, and several Madison-era pieces -- including windows, trim and paneling -- were discovered in different parts of the house, Quinn said.
"Most of the house survived, and where changes had been made, the evidence told us exactly how it originally looked," Quinn said.
With the completion of the architectural restoration, Quinn said, the next step is to furnish the 12,300-square-foot home, a process that will probably take years.
"We've started some research on it, and it's essentially a project of the same size and scope," he said.
Madison did research for the Constitution in Montpelier's second-floor study, said Peggy Vaughn, spokeswoman for the Montpelier Foundation.
"He researched all past democracies to find out why they failed, and then he designed one that would succeed," she said.
The restoration was funded primarily with private money, including $18 million from the estate of banking heir Paul Mellon. Virginia provided money for the restoration and about $4 million for ongoing operations at Montpelier, Quinn said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.