Restoration puts James Madison back into Montpelier

ByJayne Clark, USA TODAY
September 11, 2008, 11:54 PM

ORANGE, Va. -- Restorers have lopped off two wings, obliterated 14 bathrooms, re-created two staircases and, overall, reduced by more than half the size of Montpelier, President James Madison's lifelong home here in the lush foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

On Wednesday, the scaled-down Georgian mansion two hours southwest of Washington will be ready for its close-up.

The five-year, $24 million restoration has returned the stately home to the way it appeared during the fourth U.S. president's retirement years. Proponents of the project say it is a fitting tribute to a Founding Father who lacks a national monument, despite being considered the principal author of the Constitution.

Madison grew up in the house his father commissioned in 1760. He spent his retirement years here with his wife, Dolley. And he died in his first-floor study in 1836.

In 1901, industrialist William duPont bought Montpelier and gradually expanded it from 22 to 55 rooms. His daughter, Marion duPont Scott, inherited the pink-stucco house and raised thoroughbred horses on the estate until her death in 1983. She left it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and requested that the group return the house to its Madison-era appearance.

To the delight of the architectural historians working here, the duPonts were big on recycling; many of the components of the Madison home remained under expansions that took the house from 12,000 square feet to 36,000 square feet. Restorers looked for "ghost" discoloration on floors to indicate the location of original walls. They studied extensive notes from Madison's builder, James Dinsmore, exacting down to the yardage of the molding he used. And they found clues in unlikely spots, such as the mouse nest that yielded scraps of damask and silk from the Madison household.

In determining whether the restoration were even feasible, Albany, N.Y.-based architect Mark Wenger says his team was mindful that the duPont home had its own importance in the social history of Virginia.

"We needed to be sure we weren't exchanging a real house for an imaginary one," he says. "But it was astonishing what had survived. (We knew) the size of doorways within a sixteenth of an inch, and which way the doors swung and what the hinges were like. With time and resources, it's amazing what can be deduced."

With the restoration complete, interpreters will focus on the Madisons' story. Madison made his own renovations to the house, including one in the late 1700s to create a duplex where his parents lived. He inherited the property in 1801, eight years before his first term as president, and during his terms in office, the family found respite here from the muggy Washington summers. At the end of his second term in 1817, they retired to Montpelier. But by 1844, Dolley Madison was forced to sell the estate and many belongings to pay off debts racked up by her son, who was characterized as a gambler and an alcoholic.

The duPont years have been excised from the main house, but their presence hasn't been completely banished. A new visitor center features Marion duPont Scott's beloved art deco "red room," meticulously reassembled down to its black and white linoleum floor, martini shakers and equine photographs. Displays on Madison's life and presidency, and artifacts unearthed during the project (slave shackles, a candle snuffer) also are on exhibit.

The pristine 2,650 acres that surround Montpelier, including virgin forest, formal gardens and paddocks occupied by retired racehorses, have for years been put to public use. Picnicking is encouraged. Civil War re-enactors set up camp annually. (An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 South Carolina soldiers wintered here in 1863-64.) And it's also the venue for a hunt race in November and a wine festival in May.

Elsewhere at Montpelier, plans call for eventually converting the train depot, where the Jim Crow-era signage designating "White" and "Colored" areas still hang, as a museum chronicling the African-American experience from slavery to the Civil Rights movement.

House tours have been underway since 1987 and in recent times have focused on the architecture and archaeology of the ongoing restoration.

As longtime interpreter Jayne Blair notes, "We'd say, 'This is Madison's house,' but it was really the duPont story. All the visitors were seeing was the (exterior) pink stucco and they were confused. They didn't feel Madison and they didn't feel the duPonts.

"Now, all of a sudden the spirit is in the house again. The Madisons have come alive."