An Oct. 29 Real Estate article about the restoration of the historic Montpelier house incorrectly referred to Jim Vaughan as the president of the Montpelier Foundation. As stated elsewhere in the article, he is the vice president for stewardship of historic sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (Published 11/2/2005)
Montpelier, the storied home of President James Madison, the intellectual father of the U.S. Constitution, is undergoing radical surgery. Like many physically invasive procedures, it's not a pretty sight.
The front of the house has been torn off, with billowing tarp draped over the scaffolding where workers clamber over the superstructure. Interior walls are being ripped out, to make way for the restoration of the property's original walls; fireplaces that were boarded up are now exposed; arched doorways that were filled in with plaster have been opened so visitors can stride from room to room as Madison did. The building's very skeleton has been exposed during the restoration process, giving tourists the rare opportunity of seeing a Colonial home's bone structure.
It's almost like watching an autopsy being performed.
What's happening at Montpelier is called a "deconstruction," and experts say it is on the cutting edge of historic preservation today. Montpelier earned its place in American history because of what happened when James Madison and his wife, Dolley, lived there, but until recently, what the visitors to the mansion in Montpelier Station, Va., saw was nothing like the Madisons' home. Instead, they saw the palatial mansion grafted onto its shell by duPont family heirs who bought it in 1901, gave it a pink stucco exterior, added more than 30 rooms and turned the property into a famed equestrian estate.
At Montpelier, which is controlled by the nonprofit Montpelier Foundation, the duPont-era renovations are being stripped away and the Madison-era entity is being painstakingly recreated by a team of preservationists, architects and craftsmen. The project will cost $23 million and will be completed in 2007.
The same process is happening at the Lincoln Cottage, on North Capitol Street in the District, where a $2.35 million restoration is underway that will take the house back to the 1860s, when Abraham Lincoln used it as his summer getaway, living there when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It will be left unfurnished, and the big veranda that once graced the exterior has been replaced with a smaller one, which was how it was in Lincoln's day. At Drayton Hall in South Carolina, donated to the National Trust in 1975, the plantation house is being preserved with as little modification as possible, to keep it close to its authentic state, and will be left unfurnished. Similarly, the Anacostia home of Frederick Douglass, where he wrote a famous anti-lynching speech, will soon be painted grayish brown because that was the color Douglass chose for it, though neighbors today would prefer it remain painted white.
It's all about authenticity: "It's a new phenomenon and we're in uncharted territory," said William Dupont, architect for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who is not related to the duPont family that owned Montpelier. "It's an innovative approach. . . . Time will tell if it will work."
The drive to enhanced authenticity is affecting the owners of other historic homes as well. In an era of ballooning McMansions that dwarf surrounding homes, many owners of historic residences are opting for the less-is-more lifestyle, seeking to maintain the sense of tradition and history by restoring properties to what they were or finding ways to make as few changes, within reason, as possible.
Gayle DeLashmutt and her husband, Tom, own Oak Hill, the Aldie, Va., home of President James Monroe, most famous for the doctrine warning European powers to back off from the Americas. The DeLashmutts are the private owners of the property. Though Oak Hill is a site of national importance, there are no rules restricting what the family can do to it -- but they are lovingly conserving it on their own. They limit work on the house to routine maintenance of the electrical and plumbing systems added about 60 years ago, and make sure the roof is intact and patched where necessary.
At a time when many other Americans have gone for extensive kitchen remodeling projects, the DeLashmutts have done "nothing structural" to the property, Gayle DeLashmutt said, adding they have made only a few concessions to modernity.
"To live there as a family your refrigerator needs to work. And we put air conditioning in some rooms upstairs where it isn't visible from outside," DeLashmutt said.
She said she is appalled when she visits Washington's inner suburbs and sees the extensive renovations made in the name of modernization. "Some people are totally clueless and will never get it," she said. "They take a grand old house and make it a McMansion. . . . It's sad to see those wonderful bungalows and cottages dating to the past century being referred to as tear-downs. It's terrible. They are so charming as they are."
Cate Magennis Wyatt, former Virginia secretary of commerce and trade, who owns a Colonial home in Waterford that was built in 1795, also has made minimal changes to her home. She needed to modernize the kitchen to suit her family's needs but she placed the kitchen appliances in hand-crafted wooden cabinets so they wouldn't look as out of place as, say, the industrial-style stainless steel appliances that are so popular today.
Wyatt sees many historic homes in Northern Virginia because of her work with the preservationist group Journey Through Hallowed Ground, and she said many owners of historic homes -- or even those that are somewhat historic -- try to keep modifications to a minimum or actually take steps to restore them to an earlier vintage.
"It's a self-culling process," she said. "People who are attracted to historic homes typically are interested in maintaining their architectural integrity."
She said that many owners of historic homes along the Route 15 corridor, which runs from Gettysburg to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, see themselves as voluntary conservators.
"I see more interest in trying to preserve as much as possible the original fabric of a house," said Charles Seilheimer, founder of Sotheby's International Realty Corp., whose work has taken him into hundreds of stately homes around the world. "There's no question it's better for the investment. All values have gone up, but in areas like Georgetown and Alexandria [where homes are retained and restored in keeping with their original appearance], values have gone up 10 times faster. These houses are very much in demand."
But trying to decide which era in a house's history is most appropriate to preserve, and how best to do it, has proved controversial at many places. In Newport, R.I., for example, the preservation society that is restoring the 1883 Isaac Bell house had enough information to modify the house itself -- but lacked the authentic furniture that was in the home at the time. Preservationists questioned whether it should be furnished in period pieces or left unfurnished.
"It's [been] a big debate," said Richard Longstreth, an American studies professor who directs the historic preservation program at George Washington University. Eventually, the society decided to leave it empty.
In this context, major restoration such as the one at Montpelier can be even more controversial, Longstreth said. He said that restorations of that magnitude are only appropriate "when the previous state is of trascendent importance," as it is at Montpelier, and where "there is a really good record of what was there," so that the reconstruction is based on solid scholarship.
The Montpelier process drew criticism, too. As the process began about five years ago, some duPont family descendants expressed displeasure that the their family's legacy would be minimized, but eventually almost all accepted the restoration effort. Some residents of Orange County, where Montpelier is located, thought the project would be too expensive; some thought that the duPont renovations were beautiful and simply reflected the taste of another era, one not necessarily inferior to Madison's time. Marion duPont Scott, who bequeathed the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1983, was a famous horsewoman who began hosting the glamorous Montpelier Hunt Races in 1924 on the property's front lawn.
"There was some initial reticence in Orange County" about the restoration, said local historian and tour guide Frank Walker. But he said that officials at the Montpelier Foundation had decided to proceed despite objections, and that the completed project "would be positive" for the county.
Jim Vaughan, vice president for stewardship of historic sites at the National Trust, who endorsed the Montpelier restoration, said it could be important for maintaining the site's draw as a tourist destination. Vaughan said attendance at many historic houses has slipped in recent decades and that visitors are easily distracted from the important points about the place they are visiting if there are many irrelevant details competing for their attention.
"A lot of historic house museums have lost the story" of the place, he said. "Instead of the people, they talk about the furniture and the antiques. Most historic houses are important because of the events that took place there or the people who lived there."
Jim Vaughan, president of the Montpelier Foundation, said the decision was difficult to make. He said the proposal was reviewed by an independent panel of architects and historic preservationists, and their decision to support it was bolstered by a $750,000 research project that uncovered many details about the original building. He said the new scholarship meant they learned enough about what had originally been on the site to be able to proceed with the assurance that their work would restore the property to something the "Father of the Constitution" would recognize.
"We decided the Madison legacy transcended the importance of the other eras," Quinn said. "Not many people rise to the level of importance of James Madison."
Quinn said the restoration was needed because many visitors had been confused about the Montpelier property, often pelting tour guides with questions about what belonged to the Madisons, what belonged to the duPonts and what was conjectural. He said those questions stole attention from why the house was important.
Both skeptics and converts to the restoration project will get a chance to reach their own verdicts about the house as it emerges from its radical surgery. It is open for visitation now, but many people are expected to get their first peek next Saturday, when the Montpelier Steeplechase and Equestrian Foundation holds its annual Montpelier Hunt Race, a fund-raising event that draws thousands of spectators and helps support the house and its administration.