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Madison's Home Celebrates $24 Million Restoration

September 4, 2008|9:55 am

ORANGE, Va. (AP) - It isn't exactly common to make a house two-thirds smaller, or to remove the indoor plumbing. But that's what's been done at Montpelier, the plantation mansion of President James Madison.

The brick Georgian home at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains has undergone a $24 million architectural restoration with a goal of returning the structure to the way it was between 1809, when Madison was elected the nation's fourth president, and 1836, the year he died. Historians view Madison as the architect of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

"We determined at the outset that it would not be a made-up restoration," said Michael C. Quinn, president of the Montpelier Foundation, which operates the 2,650-acre estate. "Every part of it would be accurate and would be authentic, and that we would restore every room in the house, the cellars where the slaves worked and lived, as well as the dining room and all the bedrooms."

The mansion built by Madison's father in 1760 has remained open for guided tours during the project, and the completion of the massive, five-year effort will be celebrated on Sept. 17, the 221st anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.

The open house will feature remarks by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and hundreds of placard-holding schoolchildren forming a "living flag" on the sprawling front lawn.

Montpelier's highlights include the library where Madison did most of his research and thinking about concepts that would become the basis of American democracy. An original bookcase has been returned to the room, and visitors can see a spot on the floor near the fireplace where Madison is believed to have spilled ink.

The drawing room where James and Dolley Madison greeted their many guests features triple-hung windows, an English sandstone mantel and egg-and-dart crown molding. Downstairs, Dolley's in-house kitchen — kitchens of that era were usually in outbuildings — features a then-innovative built-in "set kettle" stove (where a kettle could sit and be kept warm), a bread oven and a herringbone-patterned brick floor.

John W. Braymer, chief executive of the Virginia Society of the Architectural Institute of America said no project in recent times approaches the scope of this restoration, "both in building archaeology and in exquisite execution."

While the architectural work is largely complete, the installation of furnishings and decor will be an ongoing process: Curators are researching documents, oral history, paintings, fabrics and nail holes to determine how to properly recreate each room.

The restoration of the place that served as Madison's childhood home, presidential retreat and place of retirement is part of an effort to give Madison his due respect. There are no other major monuments to Madison as there are to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers.

"I think it's a bit confounding," Quinn said. "When you go to the National Archives and see the three iconic documents that define this nation — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights — the Constitution and Bill of Rights are more the product of James Madison's mind than anyone else's, but we've forgotten who he is."

One main reason for this is that, despite Madison's intellectual prowess and political innovation, he was very modest, even shy, preferring to stay out of the limelight and allowing Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and others to shine.

"He recognized the fact that they would be getting the recognition," Quinn said. "That didn't bother him one bit."

His modesty also was evident in his relationship with Dolley, who as the nation's first lady took a strong public role during his two-term presidency and beyond.

"He literally turned over social protocol of the White House" to the gracious and charming Dolley, who was known to sit at the head of the table at dinners, Quinn said. "He realized his wife was incredibly gifted in that role — the role at which she was a natural, and he was not."

Another reason Madison might be overshadowed by other historic icons is that his home wasn't opened to the public until 20 years ago. George Washington's Mount Vernon in northern Virginia and Jefferson's Monticello in Charlottesville became historic sites in 1860 and 1923, respectively.

Dolley Madison had to sell Montpelier in 1844 largely to help pay the debts of her son from her first marriage, and the home subsequently underwent several drastic additions and renovations as it changed hands among six private owners, including the moving of whole walls and the addition of staircases between the first and second floors.

In 1901, industrialist William duPont purchased Montpelier, and during the family's 82-year ownership the home grew from 22 rooms to 55 rooms, including 12 bathrooms.

In her will, duPont's daughter, Marion duPont Scott, transferred the estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which took ownership of Montpelier in 1984, about a year after she died. Her will stated that Montpelier should be restored "in such a manner as to conform as nearly as possible with the architectural pattern which existed when said property was owned and occupied by President Madison."

The estate opened to visitors in 1987, but it was tough for them to envision Madison's life and legacy while peering at 20th-century bathrooms, grand chandeliers and the art deco-style Red Room, which displayed Scott's many equestrian trophies and other memorabilia.

In 2003, the Montpelier Foundation launched its restoration, funded largely by $20 million from the estate of banking heir Paul Mellon. After architectural historians uncovered evidence of the old structure from documents and physical imprints beneath renovations, workers removed entire wings added by the duPonts, reducing the structure from 36,000 square feet to 12,261 square feet. They also stripped off stucco from the exterior brick, rebuilt the front porch and rear colonnade, and replaced the tin roof with a cypress-shingle roof, among other projects.

"It just brings (the Madisons) back to life," Quinn said. "We want to return James and Dolley Madison to their home, and, by extension, return them to the American public."

The estate also features an education center, which houses some of the Madisons' furniture and a recreation of the couple's dining room; a neoclassical domed temple, where Madison went to meditate; and an old-growth forest with walking trails. The Grills Gallery features Dolley Madison's wedding ring and one of her empire-waist gowns, and the duPont Gallery features Marion duPont Scott's reconstructed Red Room with its original furnishings.

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