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COVER- Madison for resident: Montpelier gets extreme makeover

Published September 11, 2008 in issue 0737 of the Hook



...and after.

Like a delicate butterfly emerging out of a bloated pink pupa, Montpelier has metamorphasized back into its original self, circa 1820. The change is dramatic, the stuccoed mansion expanded by William and Annie duPont is no more, and historians say that's a good thing.

"Spectacular," says Dan Jordan, director of Monticello. "It was done with great care and a high degree of professionalism." 

Visitors to the house, which opened to the public in 1987, saw a grand mansion but couldn't determine what was Madison and what was duPont.

"People knew it wasn't the original Madison," says Michael Quinn, president of the Montpelier Foundation, the organization that oversees the National Trust-owned estate.

Since 2003, craftsmen have stripped away the 20th-century trappings-- and the 55 rooms the duPonts added to make a 36,000-square-foot mansion, triple the size of James Madison's already ample 26-room, 12,261-square-foot abode.

But why undo what duPont hath wrought? The duPonts made Montpelier popular with steeplechase. Aren't they now part of the history?

They are, but visitors, Quinn says, were focusing on what had changed, instead of on the ideals of the Father of the Constitution.

"The house really is James Madison's vision and sense of aesthetics," Quinn says. "That's why a historic home is such a powerful way of learning about a historic figure."

The Montpelier Foundation board made a vow: "We concluded we'd only create the restoration if we could do it authentically," says Quinn.

Fortunately, the duPont additions had engulfed the house, not destroyed it. Clues abounded about original layout, and many pieces of Madison's house had been re-used by the duPonts, which aided the forensic restoration. 

So with its own staff of restoration experts, craftsmen, and artisans, the Montpelier Foundation demolished the duPont wings, hand-chiseled away the stucco and revealed the house in which James Madison lived-- and died, thanks to $24 million in funding.


The new Montpelier includes a visitor center that houses a wing devoted to the duPonts, acknowledging their part in the estate's history. The Red Room, the art deco favorite of Marion duPont Scott, whose wish it was that the house be restored to Madison's era, was picked up inch by inch-- complete with highball glasses-- and moved to the visitor center. "This is our way of paying tribute to the duPonts," says communications director Jennifer Gullette. 

A duPont barn has been turned into an education center, where the table is set for Lafayette's visit to Montpelier. Madison's Landmark Forest with its 200 acres of old-growth trees is a rarity in this area so heavily cleared. 

Montpelier opened the Center for the Constitution, and the Lewis Hall education center is where seminars are held for teachers, legislators and judges. Students stay in renovated houses on the estate with no TV. "You're in Madison's world," notes Quinn.

If some may remember it as a lackluster presidential home, well, no more. On its debut September 17-- Constitution Day-- Chief Justice John Roberts and newscaster Jim Lehrer are among those celebrating the return of James and Dolley Madison's home.

Blaise Gaston has been involved in the restoration for close to five years now, and constructs doors, windows, and trim at his Earlysville workshop. He also modifies screw heads, a whole science unto itself, to replace screws that can't be purchased, and has some "extraordinarily difficult" transoms to make. "I've come to have a great appreciation for craftsmen of 200 years ago," he says.

Dino Riffic with Weber Painting works in the drawing room. Horsehair turns out to be an essential ingredient in 18th-century building, and it's combined with sand, lime, and water to make plaster, 90 tons of which has gone up on the walls of Montpelier.

James Quade preps for painting, the final touches to get Montpelier ready for its Constitution Day bash. The authentic paint contains linseed oil and chalk.

The new and improved Montpelier includes a visitor center with duPont wing, gift shop, and auditorium for a brief film to enhance the historic home experience.

Restorers discovered that the windows along side the front door are pocket windows designed to go up for air flow in those pre-air conditioning days. The view out them hasn't really changed since Madison's day, except for additional horse fencing.

The Restoration Room in Montpelier remains unfinished, to show visitors what lies underneath all that horsehair plaster. Replacement bricks were hand thrown, just like the originals. Heating and air conditioning ductwork are hidden in chimneys and closets.

The architectural room shows what's behind all that horsehair plaster.

"I pulled the first nail out of the duPont house," says Mark Gooch, who's worked on the restoration for five years. He's having to add weights to the window in Dolley's chamber. "It must have seen a lot of prop sticks," he muses.

Montpelier Foundation  brick mason Kevin Nieto removes lime wash from the doorway to the downstairs kitchen.

An insurance map from 1837 showed a detached kitchen, discovered once the duPont wing on the north end of the house was removed. "This is one of the most exciting finds," says archeologist Adam Marshall, right.

In real life, Tom Greer is a radiologist from Jamestown, New York. On vacation, he's an amateur archeologist who's also worked at Poplar Forest and Mount Vernon. Volunteers are invited to dig it.

Director of archeology Matt Reeves calls Montpelier "pretty much a dream come true" because the 2,700-acre estate survived the Civil War and duPont renovations while remaining largely intact. The newly discovered kitchen will be landscaped as it was in Madison's day, with more excavation in 2009.

Sterling Howell mans the Hands-on Restoration tent, where visitors can split a rail fence, or mix clay with water and, yes, horsehair, to make brick.

Montpelier's horticulturist since 1985, Virginia Tech grad Sandy Mudrinic, photographed in the Annie duPont Formal Garden, lives at the estate. She recommends that visitors not overlook the old growth forest-- very unusual in Central Virginia-- and its 1.5 miles of trails."You can come as close as humanly possible to what Madison would have seen in his day," she says.

James Madison's grandfather was poisoned by slaves, media manager Jennifer Gullette tells reporters on her umpteenth media tour of the estate as interest in the restoration celebration heightens. In the Madison family cemetery, 31 graves are marked, but it's believed to contain over 100 bodies, says Gullette.



This is an excellent article of the tremendous work completed to bring the Madison home back to it's original construction.

I do take issue with the side bar article by Bettye Kearse in which she states that DNA PROVES Sally Hemings's family were from Thomas Jefferson.

I worked with Dr. E.A. Foster on the DNA Study in which the DNA of a known descendant of Sally Hemings's son, Eston, was tested and this family had ALWAYS claimed descent from "a Jefferson uncle", meaning Randolph, much younger brother of Thomas. Of course the results would indicate a match if their oral history were correct, and there was a match proving their oral history correct ONLY. This does not prove it was Thomas Jefferson who fathered Sally's children.

You will note that the author, Bettye Kearse, did not reference the findings of the Scholars Commission Report (13 prominent scholars), headed by UVA's own Professor Robert Turner (www.tjheritage.org). This valuable report found that there was NO PROOF that Thomas Jefferson fathered any slave child.

The public is being completely misinformed by this continuing false accusation.

Herb Barger


posted by Herbert Barger at 9/11/2008 10:59:16 AM

Great Article. Just visited Monticello in late July and remember driving by it but it wasn't finished yet. It looks great and we hope to visit it soon.

Thanks for reporting on this!

posted by Amie at 9/16/2008 3:28:10 PM

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