- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2002

A dinner party at Montpelier was a distinct affair. The food on the table was always luxurious.

Dolley Madison biographer Katherine Anthony

In central Virginia, just south of the little town of Orange, sits Montpelier, the beautiful 2,700-acre estate of James Madison, fourth president of the United States, and his wife Dolley, the nation's first First Lady. It is a place of many wonders, even to archeological digs and slave-cabin reconstruction. But what draws you first is the dining room.

The room itself is not overly large probably 16 by 18 feet but it is set up in a fashion unforgettable, all the more so because it recreates a dinner held for the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824. The walls are lined with dark-grained, 200-year-old mahogany furniture, including small card tables and a weighty Virginia-made sideboard boasting knife boxes and a gleaming silver coffee and tea service. In the middle of the dining room table sits a large bowl of fruit, even lemons and limes. At the time extremely rare available only in port cities these precious succulents must have just been plucked out of the ice-well, and unwrapped from their protective peels of parchment.

From behind the fenced-off visitor area it's possible to make out all of the 32 images on the walls, all reproductions of the luminaries who were here for this momentous event. They include portraits of James Madison, the master of the estate; of Thomas Jefferson; of Napoleon, who many had thought was the Beast of the biblical Book of Revelation; and Confucius; as well as a Stockholm city scene and engravings of the Battles of Bunker Hill and New Orleans.

It is the room's vibrant colors that immediately grab the eye and spark the imagination.

"In Dolley Madison's day this was called chrome yellow, or sunflower yellow," says Lee Langston-Harrison of the bright hue that leaps from the walls. Ms. Langston-Harrison, Montpelier's director of curatorial operations, obviously delights in surprising visitors with this historically accurate eye candy.

"It was one of her favorite colors," she continues. "It is our understanding that she also did a whole salon at the President's Mansion in this color. It was one of the many colors coming out of the excavation at Pompeii."

Rediscovered in 1748, the volcano-buried Roman city yielded up a rainbow of lively colors, inspiration for the later classical revival that Dolley favored. Underneath the dining room table a Venetian carpet further brightens the room with Pompeiian tones apple green and raspberry red. Any occasion held in this room must have certainly been a happy one.

• • •

Once one of the Old Dominion's best-kept secrets it has been open to the public only since 1987 over the past year Montpelier has seen a dramatic increase in visitation.

"The numbers have really gone up, skyrocketed," says Michael C. Quinn, president of the Montpelier Foundation that manages the property, a National Trust historic site. "We've gone from about 36,300 visitors to about 51,700 in just one year." That's an increase of 42 percent.

"It's fantastic," he says. "It far exceeds our highest expectations."

Certainly, much of this upswing was due to the publicity generated by the 250th anniversary of the ex-president's birth March 16, 2001 but there's also substance behind the numbers. Over the past several years Montpelier has added on a fascinating array of new displays, tours, and features. And the word is getting out. A visit to the estate which Madison said was merely "a squirrel's jump from heaven" plus a tour of the attractions in nearby Orange, amply repays a stroller's time.

The home of the "Father of the Constitution" sits astride Route 20, three miles south of the county seat. After a quick stop at the Visitors' Center for tickets as well as "Acoustiguides," elongated cell-phone-like wands that deliver four recorded messages at every numbered stop on the grounds and in the house visitors can now drive onto the property itself. The old shuttle bus system is but a thing of the past.

Motor over the one-lane wooden bridge, through the open woods, and onto the well-kept steeplechase track for your first view of the stunning two-story, 17-bay presidential home. It's painted a warm tan. The massive white, four-pillared front portico faces west into the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.

First built by the president's father, in 1760, as an eight-room house, Montpelier was doubled in size by James Madison in 1797, three years after his marriage to Dolley then enlarged again in the second decade of the 1800s. William duPont, of the wealthy Delaware family, bought Montpelier in 1901 and, doubling it once more, turned it into a 55-room, 30,000-square-foot mansion. In 1983 his daughter, Marion duPont Scott, bequeathed the estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

From the brand new visitor parking lot it's but a short, 100-yard stroll to the main house. In order to make the property more accessible, the Montpelier Foundation recently put in close to four miles of crunchy gravel walking trails. Also within close walking distance to the parking area alongside rolling pastureland is the site of the first home built on the estate, an archeological work in progress, and two cemeteries.

In the Madison burial plot, Dolley's marble obelisk snuggles tightly up against her husband's much taller monument, mimicking their closeness in life. No stones, however, stand in the slave cemetery. Amongst the trees, instead, a small art display three 2-foot-high metal pyramids with open peaks marks where the eastward-facing graves were dug.

Inside the mansion, one large room in the southern wing hosts a new display entitled "The Madison Style & Taste." It comprises original furniture that has only recently returned.

The exhibit starts in the 1700s, then goes on to the fancy furniture Dolley Madison had built for her when she was in the White House.

"Everything is either mahogany or walnut, the finest woods she could find," Ms. Langston-Harrison says.

Among the display's most interesting pieces are a tall heavy-duty wardrobe of the French Directoire style, according to the curator, built by one of the furniture makers at the Palace of Versailles and a revolving shaving mirror that the wife of President James Monroe had made for Mr. Madison.

• • •

Thanks to the Acoustiguides, visitors now have ready access to plenty of Madison, and duPont, history. Walking about from site to site, both inside and outside punching in the requisite numbers and holding the black wands up to their ears they resemble a gaggle of cell-phone conversationalists. (The major difference, of course, is that these folks are not talking.) Naturally, the use of these devices cuts back on the need for human guides.

Two new personally led tours, however, have proved extremely popular. Available every Saturday from March 1 through Oct. 1 at 2 p.m., the "Saturday Estate Tour" shows off the duPont-era greenhouses, the cockfighting rings, the brick stable, and the bowling alley.

By presenting the 20th century aspects of the estate the estate of the duPonts this tour highlights a controversy: many purists feel strongly that Montpelier should be returned to the home James and Dolley knew. A $750,000 hands-on feasibility study is currently underway.

"The men here have literally been lifting floorboards, cutting behind walls, and chiseling away plaster and stucco to find what of the Madison fabric survives," says Mr. Quinn. "And if we find enough of that fabric we can authentically restore it. And then we can deal with the controversy. But it isn't an issue if enough of the fabric hasn't survived."

Another new, and well attended, presentation is truly "inside." "The "Behind-the-Scenes Tour" takes people upstairs in the mansion where they could see more of the historic core of the house.

Walking across the original, heart-of-pine floorboards of a pre-restoration upstairs bedroom, interpreter Joann Powell proudly describes its furniture: a native walnut cabinet made in Fredericksburg; a flat-top desk, similar to those owned by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; and a Louis XVI chair that she says is the real thing from Paris.

"Those blue tape squares on the duPont-era wallpaper are where they'll be chipping out the wall soon," she explains.

• • •

For the moment, however, the star attraction is the dining room exhibit. It is peopled with cleverly done life-size cutouts made from actual portraits of the various personalities. Mr. Madison and Lafayette are already sitting at the dinner table, the ladies are entering from the left.

"You have walked into a time capsule," says Ms. Langston-Harrison. "It's November 17, 1824. Lafayette has come in the day before, exhausted from his Triumphal Tour. Dolley is just arriving in all her glory, in her beautiful red satin dress. Her sisters Anna and Lucy are just behind her … "

Now is a great time to "rediscover" Montpelier, the gorgeous Revolutionary-era plantation that belonged to the Madisons, a well as the 20th century estate owned by the duPonts.

"We've made a lot of changes in order to do a better job of presenting James and Dolley Madison," says Randy Huwa, Montpelier's director of marketing. "We're doing that in the context of a property that continued on after Madison's death. Time did not freeze in 1836 when James Madison breathed his last. This is a house that is now 250 years old, on a property that was settled in the 1730s. Here you can see nearly 300 years of Virginia history."

WHAT: Montpelier, the home of James and Dolley Madison

WHERE: 11407 Constitution Highway, Montpelier Station, Va. 22957. The Visitor Center is about four miles west of the town of Orange on Route 20.

WHEN: 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily December through March, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily April through November. Closed New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, the first Saturday in November (for the Montpelier Hunt Races), Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

COST: Admission (including Acoustiguide equipment) $9 adults, $8 seniors and AAA members, $4.50 for children 6-11, free to children 5 and under

INFORMATION: www.montpelier.org or 540/540-672-2728

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