On a recent visit to Washington D.C. my wife and I took a day trip out to Orange VA to see Montpelier — the rural estate of James and Dolley Madison. If you have never been to the home of the 4th U.S. President and ‘father’ of the U.S. Constitution, I highly recommend taking a day to visit especially if you are interested in modern historic preservation.
The mansion is situated on ~2700 acres and provides stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and surrounding terrain.
Many people have seen Washington’s Mt. Vernon, Adam’s Peacefield, Jefferson’s Monticello over the years and depending on when and how they were preserved you can see varying degrees of ‘re-muddling’ from generations of caretakers each with their own budgets, skill sets and agendas. In more recent years Historic Preservation efforts have evolved along with related science and technology to try and adhere to more scientific methods and standards which allow for better educated decisions around reading materials, doing research etc — though there are still politics and agendas — my belief is that modern interpretations attempt to be more grounded in findings from the site and related research and more forthcoming with calling out what was done based on fact and what was carried out based on an educated guess — a trend I hope continues as new facts are learned about a site.
Many people have not seen Montpelier since the the property was a private residence for parts of the DuPont family for much of the 20th century. In 1983 the site was bequeathed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) which carried out a $25M major restoration effort from ~2003-2009.
After doing extensive research which called upon many experts in the field of historic preservation — from the National Parks Department, Colonial Williamsburg and private practitioners — the NTHP removed 23,739* square feet of living space from the 20th century additions made by the DuPonts. The goal was to restore the property to what it looked like at the time the Madison’s lived there.
One exterior feature that survived largely intact was Mr. Madison’s temple which sat atop the ice house which was the source of ice for Dolley’s famous ice cream.
The exterior work ranged from removing later exterior renovations to stabilizing, preserving, restoring and/or replacing exterior architectural details like the front door surrounds.
A close up detail of the pediment and its crisp detailing:
Other work was based on archeological and documentary evidence of the site — this was the case with the outbuildings which would have serviced the main home and was where the slaves and servants lived and worked.
The interior of the mansion also underwent extensive work, unfortunately we are not allowed to take photos inside, so if you want to see it for yourself you will have to visit.
What has me so excited about this site compared to many others is the fact that is was largely preserved — even with all the later renovations and additions the core of the house and many of its doors, windows and mantels survived on site AND the preservation and restoration work mainly happened during the last ten years with the benefit of being carried out by some of the best practitioners in the field.
The restored mansion takes on the look and feel of many of the historic buildings I often work on — you can see and smell the fresh plaster, the rooms are sparsely furnished as the Foundation is still looking to acquire some of the original furnishings — you can see active preservation projects going on at the site — it feels more alive and tangible compared to some of the similar sites which feel more dusty and tired from a constant stream of visitors.
The meticulous attention to detail in the restoration is evident throughout. On the second floor of the mansion they have a room that is partially restored and shows some of the more interesting finds from the exploration of the building — paint details on plaster and timbers, tags and branded numbering on repairs so future generations know who did what during this period, and an array of other interesting facts and figures. (Similar to the Gedney house in Salem MA)
So why would I ever need 56 pounds of horsehair at Montpelier? To mix into 90 tons of dry mix plaster* of course! That is how much plaster it took to restore the interior of the mansion. Staggering figures and interesting facts will keep your inner preservation carpenter happy as you take the tour. The foundation offers many books in the gift shop about the Madison’s and other founding fathers but below are two of my favorites as they are also used to train some of the docents. I recommend picking them up if you go there. They walk you through the history of the site and its inhabitants, documentation of the restoration and related research.
If you are interested to learn more about the restoration of Montpelier check out the official website here. And for the gardener in your life — the history of the various gardens and landscapes can be found on this site.
If you are interested in visiting Montpelier, check out their calendar of activities on the main Montpelier website here. There are lots of events throughout the year including candle light tours, and tours going more in depth on the Madison’s, Archeology, Historic Preservation, and the life and times of inhabitants of that period in American history. I hope to see you there.
And last but not least, since I an not in many of the pictures on this blog I figured I’d add on at least one touristy pic in front of the visitor’s center. If you make your own pilgrimage to Montpelier, let me know or better yet share your own picture in front of this sign. 🙂
* Above facts were taken from ‘James Madison’s Sovenir Book’ UPC 190001 and available from the gift shop at Montpelier.